from Asia Unbound

The Other China

July 05, 2012

A Chinese labourer waits for a job at the Chaotianmen Port along the Yangtze River in downtown Chongqing on December 3, 2000.
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Politics and Government

It appears that 2012—like every year in recent history—will yield a bumper crop of new China books. In the past few weeks, three have come across my desk—Dambisa Moyo’s Winner Take All,  Zhou Xun’s The Great Famine in China, and The End of the Chinese Dream by Gerard Lemos.

Given the number of books on China that are out there already, it is probably reasonable to ask whether we need any more. The first book I picked up—The End of the Chinese Dream—suggests that the answer is “yes”.

Lemos—whose background is primarily as an organizer, official, and consultant in the UK housing industry (and coauthor of a book on communities in the UK)—served as a visiting professor at Chongqing University during 2006-2010. During his time in China, he developed and undertook an on-the-ground survey to give voice to the desires and fears of the Chinese people in communities in Chongqing and Beijing. The survey itself was quite simple: just four questions—“Who are you? What event changed your life? What is your biggest worry? What do you wish for?”—on a printed leaf that would become part of a community “wish tree.” He simply sat outside at a table with some assistants, and people came to him to fill out their leaves.

By framing the study as an exercise in helping inform officials about local people’s concerns and improving local governance, Lemos got high-level buy-in from Beijing for his research. Of course, that didn’t mean that everything went smoothly nearly a thousand miles away in Chongqing, and Lemos shares in humorous detail precisely how he managed to circumvent the efforts of a few local officials—who were clearly concerned about his potential findings—to confiscate his results.

The results of his survey are not terribly surprising, but they are a useful and poignant reminder of how much the central government has left to do to achieve its goal of a more equitable and “harmonious” society. Overwhelmingly the adults were concerned about their ability to support themselves and their families—medical costs, education fees, and money for basic services such as electricity. They worried about getting ill, losing their jobs, and ensuring that their children would receive an education and find a job. Land tenure issues and the environment were also significant concerns. Children who filled out their cards wished for bigger libraries with more books, worried about being good students, and occasionally voiced concerns about violence in their homes.

Many of the wishes and worries would strike a chord in almost any country in the world, the UK and the United States included. The context in terms of overall standard of living and basic access to public goods such as secondary education, of course, is quite different in China, as is the number of people affected by such concerns. In particular, Lemos’ work helps us remember why it is that China faces as many as 180,000 protests annually and why it is that Chinese leaders spend so much time talking about the need for grassroots reform.

Lemos’ book falls short only at the very end, where he provides a quick and dirty analysis of the Chinese elite and concludes that the country is controlled by a “mistrustful and faction-ridden plutocracy focused on a single purpose: the creation and consolidation of wealth in their own hands" and that "The Chinese dream cultivated in the 1980s of prosperity, security, stability and even the beginning of freedom is at an end.” He may or may not be right, but the survey findings and anecdotes provided in the 250-odd pages preceding his final chapter don’t provide the evidence to support such a dramatic conclusion. In contrast, the penultimate chapter, “The Power of the Powerless,” leaves the reader in the right place—continuing to wonder how all the discontent Lemos has documented, both manifest and latent, will shape the country’s future.