Monday, 27 August 2012

The End of the Chinese Dream?

A book about Chinese fears and dreams
Tonight I attended a talk put on by the Asia Society, presenting British sociologist Gerard Lemos who has written a book called The End of the Chinese Dream -- Why Chinese People Fear the Future.

So I was hoping for a stimulating talk as did a number of other people in the audience, including former Chief Secretary Anson Chan.

However when Lemos began his talk, he cautioned he was not a China expert, only a sociologist and his findings were not necessarily scientific either.

What he did was he went to Chongqing in 2006 and at the time the Bo Xilai had yet to become Party Secretary of China's largest municipality of 30 million people.

The officials at the time were interested in finding out what ordinary people thought of policies and how they could plan for the future.

And while Lemos was there, making his first trip to China, he observed the Chinese liked to write wishes and put them on trees. And the higher up the tree they were, then the higher the chance the wish would be carried up to the heavens.

So the expert on social policy hit on the idea of creating another version of wishing trees where he gave people "leaves" to answer four questions:

1. Who are you?
2. What event changed your life?
3. What is your greatest worry?
4. What do you wish for?

British sociologist Gerard Lemos
He put these wishing trees in three areas in Chongqing, one near a tire factory that had employed 3,000 people that was shut down, one near some farmers' land that had been expropriated for development, and one near a historical area that has become a tourist spot.

Lemos read out some of the things people wrote down. Many said they were concerned about healthcare, particularly when they got older, as the cost of treatment and drugs are expensive. Others felt the pressures of the education system, that young people only have one shot at getting into university with the gaokao system and if they didn't get in, they would not only feel shame, but financially would wonder what to do.

He observed the high savings rate of young people, and put it down to the high cost of education, particularly now with one child.

Another issue is old age, and those prematurely laid off wonder how they are going to pay bills when they get older, while the one-child policy seems to have created unhappy families who are not seeing their traditional Chinese family values come to fruition and instead pour all their hopes and dreams into one child.

And then there are the "ant tribes", fresh graduates who are living in cramped quarters and having trouble finding work -- work that requires a university degree. They feel it is beneath them to take on a factory job, or perhaps would feel shame if it was discovered that was the only job they could get.

Lemos said he also did the wishing tree exercise in two areas in Beijing and got similar results.

What are we to make of all of this?

He wants us to read his book to find out, but basically his unscientific observations and answers from ordinary people show that in the late 1970s when China first opened up, there was the possibility of gaining wealth, of have the means to buy things, to have a better life and this is what fueled the Chinese dream.

But now some people are feeling that they are left out and left behind from the optimism and the dream, Lemos says.

What is also interesting is that when there were complaints about the system, people did not point fingers at particular officials, but felt the system wasn't working for them; they inherently knew trying to blame someone was not going to help.

Another observation was that more people were turning to religion to help them explain the world as it became more complicated. Lemos explained this was a phenomenon he was seeing in other places too -- like India and South Africa.

So really Lemos should be doing a world-wide reading with his four questions and then collating the answers to see what kind of country comparisons can be made, since he is not a China specialist.

Nevertheless, he has conducted an interesting project -- and should ask these same four questions again in another 10 years in China to see where people are with their Chinese dream.

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