Pros­per­ity blues

For all of its new­found wealth, China’s peo­ple are sur­pris­ingly anx­ious about the fu­ture.

Los Angeles Times - - Opinion - DOYLE McMANUS

Ispent many hours talk­ing with of­fi­cials dur­ing a 10-day trip to China. But what has stuck with me most vividly is not what I learned in govern­ment briefings but what I learned from talk­ing with Chi­nese peo­ple about their ev­ery­day con­cerns.

Peo­ple in China are sur­pris­ingly anx­ious about their new­found pros­per­ity. They worry about the econ­omy pro­duc­ing enough good jobs for mil­lions of new col­lege grad­u­ates. They fret about the ris­ing price of hous­ing for newly mar­ried cou­ples — at least $45,000 for a mod­est apart­ment in Bei­jing, a small for­tune in a coun­try with a per capita in­come of about $3,000 in ur­ban ar­eas. They worry about whether a real es­tate bub­ble has formed. (“Do you think we’ve over­built?” an anx­ious young of­fi­cial who just bought his first home asked me, un­der the mis­taken as­sump­tion that an Amer­i­can would cer­tainly know a real es­tate bub­ble when he sees one.) They grouse about the con­spic­u­ous con­sump­tion of the nou­veau riche and won­der where all that money is com­ing from.

Let’s start with con­sump­tion. It is con­spic­u­ous, at least in the big cities. Sales of MercedesBenz and BMW SUVs are boom­ing in a coun­try whose pri­mary com­muter ve­hi­cle, un­til re­cently, was the hum­ble bi­cy­cle. At glitzy night­clubs like Club 88, well­dressed young pro­fes­sion­als stay up late or­der­ing $100 bot­tles of vodka. At a shiny new Gucci bou­tique, a crocodile purse is on sale for $9,000 — and that’s in the pro­vin­cial south­west­ern city of Chengdu, not cos­mopoli­tan Shang­hai or Bei­jing. “I can re­mem­ber when 6,000 yuan (about $900) was a lot of money,” a sales­clerk told one of my col­leagues. “Now 60,000 ($9,000) is noth­ing.”

Not sur­pris­ingly, that kind of new wealth some­times en­gen­ders re­sent­ment among the 1-bil­lion-plus who don’t have it yet — and the an­tipa­thy is based on more than mere jeal­ousy.

“Chi­nese peo­ple are sus­pi­cious of any­one who gets rich,” a Bei­jing busi­ness­man told me. “They think the only way to get rich is to know some­body and get in on an in­side deal.”

Cor­rup­tion is en­demic in China’s com­mu­nist regime — enough so that the govern­ment reg­u­larly an­nounces new an­ticor­rup­tion mea­sures. In July, Bei­jing or­dered of­fi­cials to be­gin dis­clos­ing not only their own in­comes and in­vest­ments but those of their spouses and chil­dren too. Many of them, it turned out, had been grant­ing govern­ment con­tracts in re­turn for “gifts,” salaries or in­vest­ment shares for fam­ily mem­bers. One econ­o­mist, Wang Xiaolu, has es­ti­mated that the un­re­ported (and un­taxed) “gray in­come” of govern­ment of­fi­cials last year came to a stag­ger­ing 5.4 tril­lion yuan (about $800 bil­lion at the of­fi­cial ex­change rate), ac­cord­ing to the the Peo­ple’s Daily, the Com­mu­nist Party news­pa­per that has been on a cru­sade against cor­rup­tion.

In­come in­equal­ity is an­other ma­jor con­cern. Cities and prov­inces have raised the le­gal min­i­mum wage. In Guangzhou, for ex­am­ple, it’s now 1,100 yuan ($164) amonth, more than four times what it was in 1993. But the gap be­tween the wealthy, the emerg­ing mid­dle class and ev­ery­one else has govern­ment of­fi­cials and or­di­nary cit­i­zens wor­ried.

Some com­mu­nist econ­o­mists have pro­posed evening things out a bit by in­tro­duc­ing two cap­i­tal­ist in­ven­tions — the prop­erty tax and the es­tate tax — to sup­ple­ment the widely evaded in­come tax. But those ideas have touched off a de­bate within the Com­mu­nist Party over the ques­tion, fa­mil­iar in the West, of whether higher taxes will dis­cour­age en­trepreneur­ship.

An­other worry, for some, is the grow­ing gen­er­a­tion gap.

The Chi­nese talk about the “post-’80s” gen­er­a­tion — peo­ple un­der 30, who have grown up know­ing only eco­nomic re­form and pros­per­ity. Many of those younger work­ers, one study found, are aban­don­ing Chi­nese cul­ture’s tra­di­tional goal of “har­mony” and are in­stead pur­su­ing a per­sonal goal of “iden­tity.”

“We’re in­di­vid­u­al­is­tic, cre­ative, in­de­pen­dence-seek­ing,” a 30-year-old bu­reau­crat told me with a slightly self-mock­ing smile. “And there’s a post-’90s gen­er­a­tion too. They’re com­pletely West­ern­ized.” All this newly minted at­ti­tude has par­ents wor­ried. “This gen­er­a­tion” — the post-’80s co­hort — “is spoiled,” psy­chi­a­trist Li Zhongyu com­plained to the govern­ment-owned China Daily. “They don’t know what re­spon­si­bil­ity is.” One com­monly heard view is that the post-’80s are so de­mand­ing be­cause they are all only chil­dren, born — and then cos­seted — un­der the pop­u­la­tion con­trol pol­icy known as “one fam­ily, one child.”

The Chi­nese econ­omy needs the younger gen­er­a­tion to be fully en­gaged. Thanks to “one child,” the size of the la­bor force aged 20 to 29 shrank by al­most 15% in the last decade. And China’s pop­u­la­tion is ag­ing fast; by 2035, econ­o­mists say, there will be two re­tirees for each worker. By then, the pop­u­la­tion, now 1.3 bil­lion, should have peaked at 1.5 bil­lion and started to de­cline — if the one-child pol­icy holds.

Young Chi­nese com­plain about how the pol­icy re­stricts in­di­vid­ual free­dom (women who be­come preg­nant a sec­ond time are of­ten pres­sured to have abor­tions) and be­cause those with po­lit­i­cal con­nec­tions and money can of­ten win ex­emp­tions — or sim­ply pay a hefty fine (typ­i­cally $30,000, but it varies by in­come).

“Peo­ple who can have two chil­dren are very lucky,” a young woman told me wist­fully. The govern­ment says it’s go­ing to ex­per­i­ment with more le­nient forms of the pol­icy, be­gin­ning with per­mis­sion for “dou­ble sin­gles” (cou­ples who are both only chil­dren) to have two kids — but only in some ar­eas.

So is China’s next gen­er­a­tion more like us? Not en­tirely. Most of them are tol­er­ant of things Amer­i­can youth would never ac­cept. They don’t talk ex­plic­itly about pol­i­tics, or com­plain about one-party rule, or protest the cen­sor­ship that still curbs their ac­cess to the In­ter­net — at least, not to a for­eign colum­nist. Their ac­cess to Star­bucks and McDon­ald’s hasn’t turned them into democrats yet. They seem driven to amass wealth and pres­tige for their fam­i­lies — a tra­di­tional Chi­nese pur­suit — but have lit­tle ap­par­ent de­sire to ques­tion the ex­ist­ing so­cial or­der.

As mem­bers of China’s post-’80s gen­er­a­tion rise to po­si­tions of author­ity, it seems likely that po­lit­i­cal change will fol­low. But don’t for­get the most re­mark­able thing of all: how adapt­able China’s hi­er­ar­chi­cal sys­tem of author­ity has proved de­spite waves of mas­sive change.

doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com

Signe Wilkin­son

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