5/14/13 - the unbearable pressure of modern china

In today's selection -- contemporary China has established a blistering pace of economic development that has vaulted it past Japan to become the world's second largest economy. Some analysts project that it will surpass the U.S. as the world's largest economy within a generation. But all rapid change leaves a path of destruction and distress and China's success has left in its wake uneasiness and stress, which has been memorably articulated by award-winning author and commentator Yu Hua. Any comparison of China's current situation with any part of America's history is, of course, problematic and flawed, and the differences outweigh the similarities. However, in some respects, China's current stress faintly reflects the angst and dissatisfaction that resonated through American society in the late 1800s, the so-called Gilded Age, a period of unmatched economic achievement in America during which it vaulted past Britain to become the world's largest economy:

"In the thirty-odd years since Mao's death China has fashioned an astonishing economic miracle, but the price it has paid is even more astounding. When I left South Africa at the end of a visit during the 2010 World Cup, the duty-free shop at Johannesburg's airport was selling vuvuzelas -- Chinese-made plastic horns -- for the equivalent of 100 yuan each, but on my return home I learned that the export price was only 2.6 yuan apiece. One company in Zhejiang manufactured 20 million vuvuzelas but ended up making a profit of only about 100,000 yuan.

"This example gives a sense of China's lopsided development: year after year chemical plants will dump industrial waste into our rivers, and although a single plant might succeed in gener­ating a thirty-million-yuan boost to China's GDP, to clean up the rivers it has ruined will cost ten times that amount. An authority I respect has put it this way: China's model of growth is to spend 100 yuan to gain 10 yuan in increased GDP. Environmental degradation, moral collapse, the polarization of rich and poor, pervasive corruption -- all these things are constantly exacerbating the contradictions in Chinese society. More and more we hear of mass protests in which hundreds or even thousands of people will burst into a government compound, smashing up cars and setting fire to buildings.

"Many Chinese have begun to pine for the era of Mao Zedong, but I think the majority of them don't really want to go back in time and probably just feel nostalgic. Although life in the Mao era was impoverished and restrictive, there was no widespread, cruel competition to survive, just empty class struggle, for actually there were no classes to speak of in those days and so struggle mostly took the form of sloganeering and not much else. People then were on an equal level, all alike in their frugal lifestyles; as long as you didn't stick your neck out, you could get through life quite uneventfully.

"China today is a completely different story. So intense is the competition and so unbearable the pressure that, for many Chinese, survival is like war itself. In this social envi­ronment the strong prey on the weak, people enrich them­selves through brute force and deception, and the meek and humble suffer while the bold and unscrupulous flourish. Changes in moral outlook and the reallocation of wealth have created a two-tiered society, and this in turn generates social tensions. So in China today there have emerged real classes and real class conflict.

"After Mao, Deng Xiaoping drew on his own personal prestige to implement reforms and pursue an open-door policy, but in his final years he came to reflect on the para­dox that even more problems had emerged after develop­ment than existed before it. Perhaps this is precisely why Mao keeps being brought back to life. Not long ago a public opinion poll asked people to anticipate their reaction if Mao were to wake up today. Ten percent thought it would be a bad thing, 5 percent thought it would have no impact on China or the world, and 85 percent thought it would be a good thing. I am unclear about the sample's demographics, but since the respondents were all Internet users, I suspect they were mostly young people. Chinese youth today know very little about Mao Zedong, so their embracing the idea of Mao's resurrection tells us something about the mood of the age. Gripped by the zeitgeist, people of diverse back­grounds and disparate opinions find a common channel for their discontent and -- half in earnest, half in jest -- act out a ritual of restoring the dead to life."


Yu Hua


China in Ten Words


First Anchor Books


Copyright 2011 by Yu Hua


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