Home > Analysis > “China feels very turbulent” – Part 2

“China feels very turbulent” – Part 2

I have enjoyed my few days so far in Beijing, all the feeling of a hexie society.  However, that is only the superficial view of one man.  According to this Tianya post (连接) from a mainland Chinese also overseas, the under-currents are not always so smooth.  Many of those on TIanya, feeling their own discontent with society, applaud this post as being critical but balanced.   For part 1, see hereNOTE: This is the translation of a Chinese BBS post, and does not necessarily represent my experience, nor my opinions. 

The turbulence in China’s larger social environment, at root, has been caused by imbalanced development in Chinese society.

On the one hand, the laobaixing in China remain the most hard-working and good-natured anywhere.  Just as I described before, waiters making 800 RMB can peacefully coexist with senior white-collar workers making tens of thousands of RMB per month.  I’ve carefully watched their every action, and you can tell that they truly treasure this work despite its poor pay, and you can imagine how much less they must’ve made in their home villages. 

But on the other hand,  don’t know how long this situation can continue.  These guys and gals haven’t intimately seen the excessive life of luxury that some people of their age can live.  Maybe these guys/gals believed that by coming to the big city, it’s an opportunity; that if they work hard, they can create a future better than that of their parents generation.  But what’s waiting for them?  Is it really what they’re hoping for?

Take my younger cousin as an example.  She’s cultured, and knows her way around Beijing.  Chatting with her, its as if she’s come to accept that her treatment is lesser than that of other Beijing’ers.  How this sort of thought was infused in her mind, for those of us who grew up in China, I think we’re all very clear.  But, I don’t believe that this can forever maintain stability and harmony in society.  We are all people and working hard.  20 years ago, the Chinese people were willing to work themselves to death over the slogan of “to each according to his work”, but when people find that reality is drastically different, then can they really maintain a balanced attitude?

When I read about the incident of Yang Jia killing cops in Shanghai, as soon as I read the headlines I knew Yang Jia would come from a poor family.  Although the police who were killed are innocent, but after this kind of an incident, if only Yang Jia is asked to bear the burden, then regarless of how he’s punished, I can guarantee that a limitless suply of  similar people will continue to rise to the surface.  Inequality in society has caused some people with high expectations but without hopes to turn to violence and desperation.  The rush of committing a crime, and the punishment they eventually receive, perhaps this is the only way they have to vent. 

You can say modern China is built by very poor proletarians, being cheered on by a group of capitalists claiming to believe in Marxism/Leninism.  Those leaders can describe themselves as very smart and very great, but they must also be clear that if they leave the people, they’re nothing.  So today, do their descendents remember how their forefathers won this land?  If this modern society continues to split into multiple classes, if those capitalists and their servants, if those with special rights continue to commandeer a large portion of society’s wealth, then after a new generation of proletariats become truly homeless and without wealth, then burning/killing/robbing will be their only path to survival.  Execution or famine, which one is more uncomfortable?

This is especially the case because people in modern society want more than a meal.  Even the poorest people have self-respect, have expectations for the future, have the right to seek equality.  Communism is only a mirage, and no one holds any fantasies towards it, but a relatively equal Chinese society is an absolute necessity.  A completely egalitarian society can not exist on this planet, no country can do it.  But in relatively developed countries, the poor can always use their own efforts to achieve a certain stanard of living.  So, people from around the world come to America speaking of the “American dream”.  In China, eople are the same.  A poor person without any connections, they still need a way to change their life.  If honest hard work can not improve a poor person’s life, but if in their eyes if liars/cheats and violent criminals can advance themselves, then won’t they want to go the same path?

To society right now, the middle-class is the main support beam.  For now, they have food, clothes, and few worries.  But they are still pursuing a better life.  For these people to do their work solidly, that’s the primary factor behind Chinese society’s stable development.  But are they really very content with their lives right now?

The middle-class in China, as a group, is actually easier to instigate into anger than those poorer than them.  They have better culture, and they’re very satisfied with the present situation.  Many of my former classmates are in their ranks, making 5000 to 40000 RMB per month.  They have no worries right now, but I believe they’re far from living in paradise.  We don’t have to talk about work pressure; everyone faces that.  But when the middle-class raises their eyes and sees those with special rights and capitalists stealing wealth, how do they feel?  Based on what I know, many still have complaints in their hearts.  On the other hand, they are wary of lower-class workers.  They know that if the workers at the lowest level lose hope and become criminals, then those in the middle-class will be their easiest victims.  So, take a look… every home in Beijing has an anti-thief door, and every window under three stories are covered with security caging.  They rarely trust the good-will of strangers; those in the middle-class are also living in a state of concern.

Their spirits are fragile: if the stock market collapses, they can’t handle it.  If they haven’t bought a home, when prices grow they feel horrible.  If they’ve bought a house, when prices plunge they’ll commit suicide.  The middle class has been spiritually broken by constantly changing government policies; they never know if, at any point, the stable life they live today will evaporate into smoke.  After all, they’ve all seen the difficult lives lived by the workers of previous generations who used to live comfortably, but were then laid off during reforms.

What about the greatest winners of the reform period?  Are they completely comfortable with their lives?  As those at the top of the food chain, they’re the most clear that China isn’t at all how they’ve described it: peaceful, united, harmonious.  Other than a small number amongst them who’ve been hugely successful through a combination of honest hard work and rare fortune, the vast majority are clear that their wealth comes from exchanging power for wealth, or from cruelly exploiting workers.  They aren’t comfortable with the money they have, because they’re human beings, and even while they can hide their conscience, they can’t destroy their basic humanity.  They also know that when the power they rely on doesn’t exist, then their wealth will become fatty winnings in the eyes of the new power-brokers.

In the top 10 list of the wealthiest people in China, other than a businessman involved in the solar pwer trade, the majority are real estate developers.  This is not a normal scenario.  And how many hidden wealthy people are out there?  How many mine owners gained their wealth through technical expertise…?  They’re grabbing everything they can, because they don’t know what tomorrow will be like.  Find a judge, find an accountant, find a detective…  and search the account books for the real estate developers, search the account books for these mining operations.  My estimate is, probably 30% of real estate developers have acted illegally in buying land, and 30% have problems with their investment capital and taxes; 60% of mine owners have hidden problems.  For me to say this, someone will ask whether I’m spreading rumors?  I’m not saying this irresponsibly; if getting massive profits suddenly is actually legal, then the laws/policies themselves are no longer rational.  For a business without any technology to win massive profits, then that can only be bad for a country’s development.

China is an interesting country, the Chinese have a philosophical quality not inferior to anyone.  30 years ago, the Chinese people received completely traditional socialist education.  Everything that is happening in modern society today, in the eyes of the older generations, would be considered a crime in their generation.  And even those who received middle school education 10+ years ago, textbooks in political classes would still with all serious discuss the abuses of “old society” and the ugliness of capitalist exploitation in other countries.  Those of my age probably studied, in junior high school, the Western “sheep eating people movement”.  In England, in order to raise more sheep for their wool, they forced people away and claimed their land for grazing ground.  That was happening during the 18th and 19th centuries, during the “primitive appreciation” stage in England’s development, the exploitation of primitive capitalists against ordinary people.  Classic textbooks in China used this as an example to prove why Western capitalist nations were inhumane and evil.  And now, China is building factories and homes, is it really happening with completely harmony, with those forcibly moved completely content?  And if that’s not the case, then if we use the same theories as used to exist in our textbooks, then what kind of movement is this?  Who’s eating who?

So, the Chinese are turbulence, the Chinese aren’t comfortable.  The kind of activity that we were taught 20 years ago as youths were the actions of a primitive capitalist society are now more and more common in China.  We studied so earnestly back then, but now looking back, now we’re off-step from the government, we’re “counter-revolutionary”.

If China was like India, or a colonialized nation gradually transforming into a capitalist country, then the people can accept far more pressure during this primitive capital appreciation phase.  But the fact is, all three generations of Chinese were raised with an education strongly critical of capitalism.  And as the process of grabbing capital from ordinary citizens continues in China, while the highest levels are singing of a harmonious socety that focuses on the people… the obvious contrast between these two positions can lead any sort of conflict between two people into a battle of life and death.

The turbulence felt by Chinese, also comes from a clarity that we’ve never had before.  For money, some are selling every they can sell.  China’s resources, China’s environment, China’s labor, and even China’s basic morality…. when weighed against money, they’ve all lost.  The people who’re selling these things from China, they have a certain power.  The great majority of those who ache at seeing this don’t have the ability to stop them from selling the country.  Maybe they can call out online, and when average people see it, they can only become more troubled because of their own inability to act. 

China’s rare metal deposits represent 70% of the worlds’ total, and without these rare metals, industry (especially military industry) basically can’t proceed.  But local officials and businesses have caused many of these rare meatls to be sold overseas for “foreign currency”.  The really important resources are being bought and stored by foreigners, while we’ve traded for dollars and Japanese yen.  And when we use these dollars to buy a share of America’s oil market in the Middle East, do Americans agree?  When we take the Japanese Yen to buy development rights east of the middle-line in the East China Sea (see related: Has the Chinese government sold out China?), would Japan agree?  Scholars with foresight have loudly complained, China must stop excessively exporting rare metals, and severely crack down on smuggling, or we’ll leave nothing for China’s future generations.  When I see this I can only sigh; these officials and smuggling businesses, they’re only thinking of their future generations, how can they have time to think about China’s future generations?  If they have money, their children can emigrate.  What does the future of ordinary citizens have to do with them? 

When I was attending university, I was the only Chinese person in my class.  And when the professor was lecturing, he didn’t avoid me.  When he spoke of the environment, he said the US is only doing design and research towards semiconductors, with production done in southeast Asia, Taiwan, and mainland China. Because semiconductor production harms the environment too much, and the cost of processing these waste material in the US is too high… so they put the production lines in Asia.  The pollution behind randomly throwing away a cell phone is probably greater than the protection of recycling 100 aluminum cans.  So, discarded chips and electronics are also sent to China and southeast Asia to handle. 

I believe the management in China isn’t unaware of these problems, but for money, they’re willing to establish factories without effectively treating waste, allowing industrial waste to pollute our waters and mountains.  And for more money, they’ll even accept garbage from overseas.  When China’s gardens and scenery turn into wasted hills and disgusting rivers, this small group of peple will take the dollars and yen they’ve accumulated and leave this country.  But for ordinary people, can they really hold on to a peaceful heart, and avoid feeling disturbed?

  1. fall
    July 27th, 2008 at 00:31 | #1

    “modern China is built by very poor proletarians, being cheered on by a group of capitalists claiming to believe in Marxism/Leninism. ” Agree.
    They claim to believe in Marxism/Leninism but never really believe. In fact today in China there is scarcely anyone still having faith in that stuff, nevertheless “to insist on Marxism/Leninism” is one of the basic principles written in the constitution of PRC. Lies and cheating start from the very root of the nation so could turbulence be avoided in such a country?

  2. JD
    July 27th, 2008 at 03:19 | #2

    There are some reasonable concerns raised in the post. Obviously the idea that China’s natural resources should be sheltered from the global market is neither in China’s best interests nor any other country’s. Should the world stop selling oil to China? What about soy, iron ore, pork, or wheat, or airplanes? No, globalization is a reality, not a choice, and autarky is not a viable option unless North Korea is your vision of the future. The world’s economies are mutually inter-dependant and all of us (though not necessarily each of us) are better off because of it. A true win-win, despite the discomfort of rapid change.

    Differing opinions are not to be feared. It would be useful to consider what political system is best able to reconcile strongly conflicting views through an equitable, accountable, and participatory process. I suggest this system is democracy, which could focus turbulence into productive debate as opposed to destructive conflict.

  3. ChinkTalk
    July 27th, 2008 at 13:07 | #3

    buxi – you are in beijing – please comment on what you think about the attached report on actions by the chinese police – is this a common practice?

    http://chineseinvancouver.blogspot.com/2008/07/thats-freedom-of-press-in-beijing.html

  4. vadaga
    July 27th, 2008 at 13:53 | #4

    @Buxi Great post, it was an excellent read.

  5. Netizen
    July 27th, 2008 at 14:15 | #5

    Buxi,

    Since you touched down in Beijing a few days ago, you’ve made many interesting observations. Maybe it’s the case of the contrast is the biggest in the early days.

    China now is where the saussages are being made, and therefore it isn’t necessarily a pretty scene. Nevertheless, saussages are being made. What people most curious about and feared of are what kind of saussages are being made. I don’t know. It seems many Chinese don’t know either.

    I think China’s transformation has come to a stage where individuals will have to see into themselves. How they can and will do individually to live a life larger than themselves? Will they just blame the state, the government, the police, officials, and others for the problems exist? Or will they live individually up to the standards they expect of others living up to.

    I expect the Chinese come through this process of transformation, as individuals and as a nation. But it’ll be a long process.

  6. July 27th, 2008 at 15:42 | #6

    Congrats on a great pair of posts, Buxi. This website just keeps on getting better – Often controversial; always educational 😉

    One interesting observation the author made: “So, take a look… every home in Beijing has an anti-thief door, and every window under three stories are covered with security caging. They rarely trust the good-will of strangers; those in the middle-class are also living in a state of concern.”

    This was one of the things that shocked me most when I arrived in Changsha for my first year in China. Our school was in the suburbs of Changsha, in a nice, calm, recently developed area. But when I saw our apartment building for the first time, my first thought was “prison”. Every window and door had metal bars covering it. The vast majority of Chinese people I met were good, honest people, and besides a few students reporting their cell phones being stolen on the buses, I never heard of much crime in the area – is theft and burglary really that big of a problem in China? Or is it just a perception?

    I believe Thailand has a higher crime rate, but here in Nakhon Si Thammarat (former mafia capital of the country) I rarely see bars on windows. It’s an interesting contrast.

  7. Buxi
    July 27th, 2008 at 22:06 | #7

    @ChinkTalk,

    I’ve been following the news regarding the journalists. Watching the full video from the HK station, it was obviously a very chaotic situation… with thousands of people rushing uncontrolled towards newly opened ticket counters. (Makes me a little concerned about my Opening Ceremony…) So, I have no problems with the police taking decisive action against those who weren’t following instructions.

    Freedom of the press? A HK reporter trying that with LAPD would’ve been on the ground and in handcuffs within seconds. So, double-standard here? Of course.

    But that’s probably my biggest complaint… the officers weren’t professional or decisive. Shoving the reporter in the throat looked like the action of an angry guy walking out of a bar, they can do better.

  8. Buxi
    July 27th, 2008 at 22:15 | #8

    I think the original author is being a little creative. He’s not making observations of the Chinese world, he’s making ideological predictions about how people “will” eventually behave. And in trying to do that, he’s no better qualified than the rest of us (including the Communist Party).

    The truth is, Marxists/Leninists/Leftists criticize the Chinese government for having sold out to the capitalists (like the original author does). On the other hand, rightists criticize the Chinese government for being too socialist and having held back more economic reforms, and think the recent Labor Law will hurt the Chinese economy.

    I think the hallmark of a good government isn’t whether its being criticized, but whether it’s getting it from both sids… because that tells you it’s squarely in the middle. And that’s the current Chinese government.

    I don’t have a crystal ball. I certainly think its true that if the income gap continues to grow, there WILL be problems. But I believe the government is aware of that, and has the political will + ability to do a few things about it. The Labor Law helps; taxing the rich will also help (there’s talk of increasing the “minimum tax” threshold above 2000 RMB); eliminating taxes for the poor will also help; taxing the wealthier provinces to spend in the poorer provinces will also help… there are a lot of things the government can do, and it appears to be doing much of it.

    Anyone else notice that both Shanghai and Guangdong’s GDP growth this year is lower than the national average? The real-estate slow-down is partly responsible, but so is government policy emphasizing the poorer inland provinces.

  9. XH
    July 28th, 2008 at 02:36 | #9

    What the author is describing seems to be some of the inevitable growing pains accompanying rapid industrialization and transition in any society, when values and virtues of any kind seem to be thrown away in the air, replaced only by monetary value. These images of the rich-poor divide and the violence seen in society in the form of riots and crime remind me of my readings in the history of nineteenth-century England or France. In these situations, images of a fictitious past when people were simpler, more harmonious, and full of hardy virtue become quite common themes. After all, Marx did not conceive of his theories in a vacuum.

    The solution here still lies in continued development, no matter how cruel or vicious or ruthlessly competitive it might seem. The only way to solve the problems of the rural peasants is to eliminate the peasantry entirely, replace their landholdings with agricultural enterprises or businesses. The only way to solve the problem with migrant workers is through developing niches in the world economy that would allow for high-end, value-added brand products. Certainly, many of these things need to be accomplished with accompanying social and political transition. So how the Communist Party manages this mass migration and urbanization in the next few decades will be critical to whether China can move to the next step.

  10. xy
    July 28th, 2008 at 04:51 | #10

    Farmers are doing OK at the moment as food prices are high. That will attract more investment to agriculture. City development is slower at the moment due to credit squeeze, higher input prices, lower overseas demand for exports, SH stock crash, Chengdu earthquake, GZ flood, regulations such as closures for the BJ Olympics. I don’t have complete faith in XH’s solution of making high-end value added products.
    My solution would be to increase the quality of services for domestic consumers. Then offer those services to overseas tourists like Japan and Taiwan have done and are doing. This usually adds to inflation though, because better services are more expensive.

  11. ChinkTalk
    July 29th, 2008 at 14:46 | #11

    thanks for your input, buxi. i am tickled that i can get first hand info from you. and i trust your impartialilty.

    thanks for the hard work on this site, hope you will be able to have a bit of fun with the family.

  12. LACJ
    July 29th, 2008 at 17:02 | #12

    I must say the conversations here are just great, my only complaint, and its a small one, is that things move too fast and I always seem to be late to the party.

    The fast and very real development of China’s economy and society necessarily is bumpy. I am not going to try to analyze it in detail at this time.

    There is danger ahead, if the rich continue to avoid taxes and especially if the rich manage to dictate policy. We can see that from the US, and I believe historically, any time the rich are firmly in control a nation will fail to advance at a fast pace. The rich will always focus on their own short term benefit, and will never support policies that benefit the whole society unless they themselves gain something (unless altruistic ideals are embedded in the social framework).

    At the same time, AC is right from another thread, things ARE getting better and better, for almost everyone. Anybody who says different doesn’t know what the hell they are talking about. I have seen this development over the past years, but of course this is less true in the rural areas, and this is my biggest concern. This broad-based development is the most important thing. Would that the US could say the same. BTW I am a native American, been in China for a long time.

  13. EugeneZ
    July 30th, 2008 at 05:02 | #13

    The biggest challenge for China is the same as it is for the world, as China and India become nations of consumers, the earth can not tolerate it. You are talking about 2.5 billion people becoming consumers of all kinds of resources, amongst which fossil fuel and water, both very scarce, and fossil fuel causes global warming, which will lead to more severe water problems, etc.

    Other than that, all the challenges we are talking about pale in comparison, in my view.

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