News from the Front: China Seen from Inside

Yesterday, I posted a brief squib, focused on the fact that high-level party officials in China are now instructing their underlings to buy and read Alexis de Tocqueville’s minor masterpiece The Ancien Regime and the French Revolution. This morning, I receive an email from someone in China — who, in effect, said, “You don’t know the half of it.” With this individual’s permission, I will reprint here a selection of the comments that I was sent. I have edited these slightly for coherence and to hide the author’s identity. Where you find brackets, I have intervened. These comments convey, I suspect, rather well the reality on the ground.

I read with interest, having followed the link from InstaPundit, your article on Tocqueville and the Communist party leaders. I am currently in China, and when I returned here [a short time ago], for the first time in a long while, I did so with a return ticket, being of the conviction that the land would come to revolution by January of 2013. Happily for me, so far it has not yet. I am in [location suppressed], and though I have never seen any signs of unrest, it’s always occurring where I am not, that was the logical conclusion to my ruminations on the reality of modern day life on the ground.

Apart from the scandals you have noted, the inequities, from my perspective would seem untenable. When Joe SixPack cannot buy anything but a 30 square meter cat swing, if he can even afford that, because prices have risen so outrageously that the cost of housing is out of reach of all but the most wealthy, then something will tip over. When a two bedroom apartment is priced out of the range of someone in the business class at 9,000 RMB (and rising) per square meter, then something is seriously wrong.

[My acquaintances] have been saying, in oral reports, that their lives are now more colorful than it was in the past. This is their way of saying that they are now fortunate to have things we in the USA have long taken for granted, whether such a state of affairs will continue with Obama as our president is a dubious proposition. Things such as warm clothing (good winter coats and shoes, for example), heating in the homes, hot water with which to bathe, a smorgasbord so much so that kids in school are tossing their food in the garbage (a parent I work with told me this), fancy electronics from iPods on up to iMacs, have made their lives more ‘colorful’.

Naturally enough, there is a sense of rising expectations that comes with this increase of the good life. The ones who are coming up now, expect a life that is better than what those now in the workforce have. When I came here for the first time some years ago, what those kids had and what these now have is miles apart. Even more, with the sense of rising expectations have come a sense of entitlement amongst the well to do. So now there is a generation who have known affluence because of their parents’ labors and who have absolutely no work ethic, and the composition of whose universe is circumscribed by the I. They do not work, will not work, only want to hang out and purchase the latest to show the world that they have. They know the cost of everything and the value of nothing besides their own wants.

You have quite rightly concluded a revolution [is in the offing] if anything impedes or alters the nature of this sense of rising expectations. The ones who have not yet achieved have enough hunger to reach for [things] by force. The ones who don’t want to achieve and want to live the lives of the idle rich, on their parents’ jiao, will not fall into apathy were that pleasant lifestyle to come to an end. Plus, the private companies, not controlled by the party and rejecting its influence in their sphere of operations, because they don’t need it to prosper, will also have something to say. As for me, cognizant of these undercurrents, though seeing no active signs of unrest, I have created for myself a go-bag containing all the necessities for rapid egress, including documentation and sustenance, should that summary exit need to be overland and on foot.

When I asked permission to quote these comments and their author complied, I was given another comment or two worth reprinting:

You know, Prof. Rahe, there are, in new malls, new shops, such as Olé, that sells mostly foreign foods and drink, including European and American cod liver oil capsules and other vitamins. The prices are such that they are a bit out of the range of even the people working there. I’ve purchased German beer there, and good beer it was, but declined to acquire much else from them because their prices are ridiculous. One can/bottle of European beer or ale can be 26 RMB or 45 RMB. I got the ones that were a buy two get one special at 19 RMB a three-pack. Liqun, which the locals mostly imbibe is 3.5 RMB per bottle, and Tsingtao is maybe 5 RMB or so.

[A few years ago], being in Walmart was a sort of status symbol. Many locals would come in and browse. If they could afford it, they would buy one or two small things to have the shopping bag, their nod to conspicuous consumption, and they would inquisitively eye the purchases of us foreigners to determine the total cost. Well, Walmart is not quite passé, and Olé has not yet caught on, but shopping at these places is another bridge, another goal.

[When I was here earlier], most of the restaurant working girls wore the soft black and cheap cloth shoes that are so common here. Others wore a better quality but still unremarkable shoes. Many wore the hard plastic slippers or flip flops, without regard for temperature. Those days are mostly gone. The variety and quality is incredible. Young ladies flash in fancy heels and boots. Leather is becoming a common sight, be it for handbags and shoes. The people are aspirational, even in footwear, desiring to purchase American goods because the soles are thicker and more cushioned.

What happens when this upward tide is abruptly halted? What will happen to the very conspicuous consumers who flash their gold necklaces and fancy rings, their Mercedes Benz and their BMW’s, their iPhone 5’s and their Samsung Galaxies? The other day, about two three weeks ago, I saw something I’d never before witnessed here. A man on his virtual soapbox, speaking to a crowd that was expanding, and he was not hustling a sales pitch. From the tone and tenor of his words, from some of what I understood, there is some cause to fear, to be worried.

Thirty years ago, when I was a fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs, I wrote a newsletter that caused one former fellow to write to me to say, “That was wonderful. I could almost smell the place.” This was what I thought when I received these comments.

China is a dormant volcano. I have no idea when it will blow. But there are tremors aplenty these days, and they are useful reminders that, when things get to be profoundly uncomfortable, a change is on the way. Remember the fall of the Berlin Wall? I always knew that the artificial divide in Europe would someday dissolve. I did not know when. All that it takes is for things to reach a tipping point, and then all it takes is a trigger.

  1. Bill Walsh

    Chinese history is replete with examples of (almost everything, but conspicuously) periods of longish apparent stability punctuated by sudden, violent collapses with enormous body counts—the Taiping Rebellion’s being probably the most horrific example. The history is worth considering, not least as a guide to what the Chinese themselves may fear.

  2. smp16

    Thanks for this post, Dr. Rahe, and the one from yesterday. I found them extremely fascinating. Coincidentally, just a few days ago I was reflecting on something I read about China and I started to wonder what you might have to say about that country, so these posts were really well-timed!

  3. The Mugwump

    I don’t think it’s just the lack of material expectation that will be the communist downfall.  It’s just a hunch on my part, but I don’t think sixty-five years of communism is enough to extinguish 2,500 years of culture and tradition.  Confucian philosophy with its deep emphasis on personal morality might be one of those noble truths that can withstand tyranny even if forced to go dormant for a time.  There is also the rise of the Fulan Gong which seems to indicate that the Chinese people suffer a spiritual hunger that atheistic communism cannot feed.  Communism is soulless, but man is at least in part a spiritual being.  I would put my bets on the soul of the Chinese people against the material minded atheists who worship only power.  This tyranny, too, shall pass.  

  4. John H.

    News From The Front. Of what? The Vulgarian Civil War? The  quotations of prices and enumerations of toys just don’t convince me of anything. Yes, people may actually destroy their governments in the pursuit of more crap they can buy, but even after they do this and get more crap they can buy, their political habits are unchanged. If eastern Europe and South America are any indication.

  5. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    John H.: News From The Front. Of what? The Vulgarian Civil War? The  quotations of prices and enumerations of toys just don’t convince me of anything. Yes, people may actually destroy their governments in the pursuit of more crap they can buy, but even after they do this and get more crap they can buy, their political habits are unchanged. If eastern Europe and South America are any indication. · 56 minutes ago

    The individual on the scene reports what is visible — which you rightly describe as a crass consumerism. There seems to be little else to life in China — which explains why, when the merry-go-round stops, it is apt to come apart at the seams.

    If the ancient Confucian ethos is still alive, it militates against the kleptocracy that China’s communist government has become.

  6. D.C. McAllister
    C

    To get ongoing insight into what’s going on in China, consider following the Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei on Twitter. You can find out about him on the Web. His story is fascinating and enlightening. Search for the documentary “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” and watch if you’re interested.

  7. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    epoche: dr rahe do you think that there will new religions in this century? crass consumerism is the main religion in both the east and west I think that we have attended to the material for too long and neglected the spiritual. · 11 hours ago

    Edited 11 hours ago

    In China, Christianity is spreading like wildfire. It is not a new religion but it is new to most Chinese. And remember Falun Gong. The hunger is there.

  8. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    Illiniguy: If what your correspondent tells us truly represents an undercurrent of unrest and class division in China, it’s an ominous sign. Consider the other factors at play:

    • China’s population is aging as fast as if not faster than our own. The cost of maintaining that population is going to get worse before it gets better.

    • The one child policy has resulted in a younger generation consisting of many more males than females. There’s going to come a point where the only thing that can be done is put them in a uniform, hand them a gun and point them towards Siberia.
    • Growing demand for better material conditions will create social divisions that China’s authoritarian government knows how to deal with in only one way: force.

     I think it was Mark Steyn who said that China will grow old before it grows rich. It may be that the golden age of Chinese ascendancy is already behind them. But that isn’t necessarily a good thing for the rest of us. · 11 hours ago

    Right on all counts.

  9. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    Bill Walsh: Chinese history is replete with examples of (almost everything, but conspicuously) periods of longish apparent stability punctuated by sudden, violent collapses with enormous body counts—the Taiping Rebellion’s being probably the most horrific example. The history is worth considering, not least as a guide to what the Chinese themselves may fear. · 5 hours ago

    Indeed.

  10. Paul A. Rahe
    C

    It is hard to say what shape an upheaval would take in China. Modern technology improves communications, eases travel, and makes fragmentation less likely. There is a vast population of effectively illiterate, impoverished peasants. The cities are full of migrants. There is an elite of post-communist princelings who have made out like (and as) bandits, and there is a modernizing technocratic elite ensconced in the party that is capable of reading and reflecting on Tocqueville’s book. To this you can add the officer corps in the military. It is a very volatile mix.

  11. epoche

    dr rahe do you think that there will new religions in this century? crass consumerism is the main religion in both the east and west I think that we have attended to the material for too long and neglected the spiritual.

  12. Illiniguy
    Paul A. Rahe: It is hard to say what shape an upheaval would take in China. Modern technology improves communications, eases travel, and makes fragmentation less likely. There is a vast population of effectively illiterate, impoverished peasants. The cities are full of migrants. There is an elite of post-communist princelings who have made out like (and as) bandits, and there is a modernizing technocratic elite ensconced in the party that is capable of reading and reflecting on Tocqueville’s book. To this you can add the officer corps in the military. It is a very volatile mix. · 22 minutes ago

    Bill Walsh: Chinese history is replete with examples of (almost everything, but conspicuously) periods of longish apparent stability punctuated by sudden, violent collapses with enormous body counts—the Taiping Rebellion’s being probably the most horrific example. The history is worth considering, not least as a guide to what the Chinese themselves may fear. · 6 hours ago

    Sort of like, say, Russia in 1917?

  13. Illiniguy

    If what your correspondent tells us truly represents an undercurrent of unrest and class division in China, it’s an ominous sign. Consider the other factors at play:

    • China’s population is aging as fast as if not faster than our own. The cost of maintaining that population is going to get worse before it gets better.

    • The one child policy has resulted in a younger generation consisting of many more males than females. There’s going to come a point where the only thing that can be done is put them in a uniform, hand them a gun and point them towards Siberia.
    • Growing demand for better material conditions will create social divisions that China’s authoritarian government knows how to deal with in only one way: force.

     I think it was Mark Steyn who said that China will grow old before it grows rich. It may be that the golden age of Chinese ascendancy is already behind them. But that isn’t necessarily a good thing for the rest of us.

  14. Valiuth

    Interesting set of posts professor.

    Paul A. Rahe:  Remember the fall of the Berlin Wall? I always knew that the artificial divide in Europe would someday dissolve. I did not know when. All that it takes is for things to reach a tipping point, and then all it takes is a trigger. · · 4 hours ago

    What you describe for China though seems to be the exact opposite of Eastern Europe. There the regimes fell because they had finally burned off the last of their nations economic and cultural reserves. China on the other hand may burn out because they have risen too fast. I wonder though historically when China falls to peaces internally it can be quite protracted. Would you picture something like a splitting up of the country or just political upheaval.

    To me it would seem that Tibet and even some western provinces might make break away moves in the case of internal strife.  

  15. Jim  Ixtian

    Those comment by Prof. Rahe’s correspondent read similar to what I saw when I was in China in 2004 and 2008. Lots of affluence in the big cities like Shanghai and Beijing, but go to the country and it is a different world. The contrasts between the two sides of the country are even more stark in places like Xinjiang. Development in China is a double edged sword. Yes, it has brought some jobs and prosperity, but the very deliberate policies really undercut any goodwill that might have been earned from the locals whether they are Uighurs, Mongols, Tibetans, or the Chinese themselves.  I saw roads running right though the bulldozed houses, with the remaining portion of the house still occupied.

    Illiniguy: 

    • The one child policy has resulted in a younger generation consisting of many more males than females. There’s going to come a point where the only thing that can be done is put them in a uniform, hand them a gun and point them towards Siberia.

    Not yet, that’s what the smaller nations like Mongolia, Bhutan, etc. surrounding China are for. Russia is later. Also, I saw lots of Chinese supported projects in Burma too.

  16. Arahant

    How many Tianamans before the current regime falls?  One?  Two?  Three?  And what shall replace it?

    When we had our revolution, it was a group of men asserting their rights, pointing to God and history.  It was about life, liberty, and property rights.  We had more than five hundred years of practice in limiting governments.  Our Founding Fathers understood economics.  They didn’t want something for nothing.  They just wanted to keep what was theirs.

    What have the Chinese to point to when the revolution comes?  iPads?  Mercedes Benz automobiles?  That is a claim against economics rather than for it.  That is the Frennch Revolution and many others, which did not increase the wealth, but destroyed it.  The only question now is who will get there first?  The US or China?

  17. TheSophist

    I wonder how much this unreported phenomenon accounts for the massive influx of Chinese cash into the Canadian and American real estate markets….

  18. Z in MT

    The questions is if China degenerates into complete internal strife, what does that mean for the United States and the rest of the world?  I think we would have to worry less about Chinese’ foreign ambitions, and more about the economic effects.  If the Chinese factories quit making consumer goods for the world because they are fighting internally then there will be a major supply shock and inflation will quickly get out of control.  At this point it would take years to reestablish manufacturing in other countries at a much higher cost.  What will happen to Apple when  they can’t deliver the latest iPhone or iPad, even at triple the price?  Apple and similar companies profits will crash sending us into a severe recession while we are still recovering from the last one.

  19. Paul A. Rahe
    C

    For a time, China would be less of a factor in international politics, but, I suspect, only for a time. The short-term economic consequences could be severe.

  20. Arahant
    Z in MT: The questions is if China degenerates into complete internal strife, what does that mean for the United States and the rest of the world?  I think we would have to worry less about Chinese’ foreign ambitions, and more about the economic effects.  If the Chinese factories quit making consumer goods for the world because they are fighting internally then there will be a major supply shock and inflation will quickly get out of control.  At this point it would take years to reestablish manufacturing in other countries at a much higher cost.  What will happen to Apple when  they can’t deliver the latest iPhone or iPad, even at triple the price?  Apple and similar companies profits will crash sending us into a severe recession while we are still recovering from the last one. · January 12, 2013 at 2:11pm

    Optimist!