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.