Pi Attitude Zone: Conformity & Stability

Middle Kingdom Hits Mid-Life Crisis

The end of Mao Zedong’s catastrophic Cultural Revolution in 1977 is already more than a generation in the past.  The famines, purges, violent social rifts and economic dysfunction that engulfed  China at the time are now a distant memory.  China has already overtaken Japan to become the world’s second-largest economy.  Within the boundaries of the Middle Kingdom, more human beings have recently been lifted out of poverty than anywhere else on earth, ever.  The Chinese people are becoming accustomed to levels of personal liberty and material wellbeing unimaginable just forty years ago, when Mao’s Red Guards trampled and despoiled their parents’ society.  The country is now a giant market economy, and expectations are high.

China has achieved astonishing things in a very short time.  So why would its citizens still harbor deep anxieties about their country’s future, and their own personal futures within it?  Mao himself may be gone, but the party he led still reigns supreme.  And that fact gives rise to a multiplicity of factors that are undermining the growth of real long-term consumer confidence.

Political corruption remains endemic, despite pious promises from the leadership to clean house. Its effects pervade nearly all areas of life.  People suffering the effects of the (literally) sickening smog in Beijing and other conurbations hear the pledges of remedial action, but see the worst polluters pulling connections and bribing their way past environmental regulations with impunity.  The market in land for housing, industry and agricultural use is grotesquely distorted by local politicians, who exploit it for personal gain. Chances of job promotion often depend on paying off bosses.  Getting a decent education for your kids means greasing the palms of party-appointed hacks in what is often little more than an education racket.  And the wealth gap separating the richest party overlords from the rest of the population is already looking unbridgeable.  The fifty wealthiest members of China’s ruling political elite are collectively sitting on assets of almost a hundred billion dollars, according to recent estimates -- the reality could be significantly bigger, but is impossible to trace in full.  And with the police and the judiciary still taking their cues directly from the ruling party, it’s difficult to see any of that changing anytime soon. 

Even when China’s economy eventually overtakes that of the USA, the average Chinese citizen will still be very significantly poorer than his or her American counterpart.  The Chinese seem to sense the limited and conditional nature of the improvements in their lives, and they harbor deep-seated anxieties about the future.  The hard part still lies ahead, they realize.  They see that reform’s chances of success depend on political change that few believe will materialize, whatever the current official rhetoric about the coming “Chinese Dream”.  Indeed, China’s middle class makes rueful jokes about the Chinese Dream being about getting your kids into a university outside the country.  Pessimism is widespread.  Applications for passports are up, and Chinese money is being invested in property in London, Dubai and Singapore.

This does not necessarily mean that a free national vote in China would automatically bring in Western-style multi-party democracy, since most Chinese have learned to fear the instability that follows change. 

Yet the voices calling for transparency, accountability and social fairness continue to get louder.  So do the anxieties voiced by ordinary Chinese consumers.

Zone: Conformity & Stability Country: Asia / Pacific Product –