What Keeps the Chinese Up at Night

Problems in China are mounting as they prepare for a leadership transition next month. China has been facing slowing economic growth and destabilizing social problems. The people in China have lost their optimism and are yearning for security and freedom from anxiety.

By GERARD LEMOS
Published: September 9, 2012
NY Times

AS China prepares for a leadership transition next month, problems are mounting: slowing economic growth, the political fallout from the Bo Xilai affair and destabilizing social problems. Chinese leaders find it hard to know what ordinary people really think.

For four years, I tried to answer this question, as I traveled to and from the foggy, industrial megacity of Chongqing as a visiting professor. I spent months teaching and studying in communities without foreigners around, where state-run factories had closed and where landless ex-farmers now live in barren blocks of apartments.

I wanted to find out what was on the minds of ordinary people. What did they talk to one another about? So in 2007, with permission of the authorities, I put up billboards featuring images of trees, like the “wish trees” in Daoist, Buddhist and Confucian temples, where people tie notes about their private desires to the branches, hoping that the wind will blow their prayers to heaven. Chongqing residents stuck hundreds of their leaf-shaped notes onto the branches of my “trees.”

Their wishes and worries were candid, heartfelt and startling: people had lost their optimism and were yearning for security and freedom from anxiety. Income is a primary worry for those who have lost their jobs or land. Pensions and social welfare payments are almost nonexistent. People struggle to pay for education. They can’t afford medical treatment; clinics and hospitals require patients to pay cash in advance. A serious illness can spell financial ruin for an entire family.

China’s one-child policy has turned family life from a source of solace to a font of anxiety. Parents now get just one chance for a child to succeed and to support them in their old age. Single children carry an unbearable burden of parental and grandparental expectations.

In sum, a spiritual hunger has taken hold even as physical hunger has receded. Anxiety and resentment are turning people inward; the Chinese are being consumed by anomie, a listless sense that life has little meaning.

In the late 1980s, Deng Xiaoping’s reforms raised living standards and ended the frightening chaos of the Cultural Revolution. Things were looking up for almost everyone. But a further wave of reform in the 1990s closed factories and devoured farms, heralding a storm of new anxieties for many ordinary people.

Chongqing, which for a time during World War II was China’s capital, had engulfed surrounding agricultural land. As compensation for lost land, farmers received a cramped flat and a small cash payment. “I’m a citizen at the bottom of society,” one wrote for my wish tree. “We would like to punish those who have taken away our land.”

In another community, built around a huge but now closed tire factory, one man hung this message: “When the factory went bankrupt, my length of service was one year short and my age was one year short of retirement. I worked for 29 years. What can I do with my life when they closed the factory and my daughter is studying in university?”

Rubbing her stomach, an old woman from the same community told me: “My daughter is far away in Guangdong. I am sick. I’ve had this lump for a long time. I think it’s cancer. I can’t afford to go to a doctor, and I haven’t told my daughter. I don’t want to ruin her life.”

The one-child policy has meant a proliferation of “bare branches” — men cast aside as a result of China’s skewed gender ratio (six men for every five women). In a culture with a strong preference for boys, parents often use ultrasound and terminate pregnancies for sex selection. Fearful about their chances, even schoolboys worry about marriage.

One undeniably ambitious 11-year-old said he wanted to lead a flying squad, China’s equivalent of a SWAT team; another boy, age 12, wanted to be a “trillionaire.” But both feared that they would never get a wife. Young women, by contrast, can be picky and state openly that only a rich husband will be acceptable.

I told the officials who gave me permission to put up the wish trees about these anxieties. But in their authoritarian, bureaucratic mind-set the reports were taken as early warnings of social tension rather than grievances to be redressed.

Many people are turning to Taoist and Buddhist traditions, Christianity or newfangled religions and cults. Virulent anti-Japanese nationalism is also on the rise, especially in cities like Chongqing that were major bombing targets during World War II. So are prostitution, gambling and suicide.

In their quest for old certainties, ordinary people are enthusiastically talking once more about Confucius. Prosperous families send their children to classes to learn about the philosopher’s “great harmony,” and China is creating hundreds of Confucius Institutes around the world. In January 2011, a large statue of Confucius appeared unannounced near Tiananmen Square. It remained for three months but suddenly disappeared without explanation; placing a statue of the sage in central Beijing was evidently a step too far.

The incident is a fine symbol for the true battle for China’s future. It is not an argument between Communism and Western models for society. It is a search for the Chinese soul and for an alternative to a tortured contemporary psyche.

When the now disgraced leader Bo Xilai became Chongqing’s mayor he immediately spearheaded a popular campaign against organized crime and corruption. Mr. Bo tried to ease the shortage of low-cost housing and to improve the lot of impoverished migrants to the city. He also began a Maoist campaign, encouraging the singing of “red songs” and sending SMS messages of Mao’s sayings to millions. This propaganda was designed to attract the support of hard-line factions in Beijing, but ordinary people reacted more cynically. Most people I knew just laughed and shrugged.

But Mr. Bo’s high-profile campaign fell apart when his police chief sought sanctuary in the American consulate in Chengdu, complaining that Mr. Bo was riding roughshod over the rule of law.

Although his wife, Gu Kailai, has been convicted of the murder of Neil Heywood, a British businessman, Mr. Bo’s whereabouts and future remain a mystery. The “Chongqing model” — Maoist propaganda, handouts for the fractious poor and ubiquitous control of all public institutions, including the police and courts — has been a threat to the Beijing leadership but seems to have collapsed with Mr. Bo’s fall from power.

China’s export-led boom is fading. Potential economic stimuli might backfire and overwhelm state-owned banks with bad loans. Crony capitalism and corruption are endemic. Extremes of wealth and poverty, as well as multitudes of public grievances against officialdom, are all continuously fueling social discontent.

The anxieties highlighted on my wish trees — the one-child policy, urban migration, health care, educational costs and unemployment — are intractable.

Beijing needs to become more comfortable with decentralizing power, but local government is too often corrupt and incompetent. And at the top, the Communist Party is divided. Its highest priority is the survival of the one-party system, and for now, it seems to have decided that authoritarianism is the best bet. The remaining options for ordinary people are despair or dissent.

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