In the early years of reform in China in the 1980s it seemed everyone was a winner. Farms were decollectivised allowing farmers to grow and sell more food and keep the profits. Millions of new jobs were created in factories in the special enterprise zones. The old state-owned enterprises were largely untouched and the “iron rice bowl” of a job for life, pensions, rudimentary health care and free education (though never available to everyone) was still intact for many. The 1980s were the years of the Chinese dream.
But after Tian’anmen and Deng Xiaoping’s renewal of the Party’s reforming zeal on his southern tour in 1992 state-owned enterprises which had been previously unaffected by economic reform were restructured. Loss-making factories closed and work units were combined into something like modern corporations, though the Party still owned at least a 70 per cent stake. Millions became unemployed and the “iron rice bowl” was peremptorily smashed. Their old communities have been demolished and ways of life abandoned. If they were lucky they got tiny, isolated flats in poorly built tower blocks as compensation. There is no longer anywhere to do tai ji or take the caged birds out for a stroll. More seriously, without a job or welfare support they have no prospect of prosperity or wellbeing. Too often they were cheated out of their meager entitlements and got nothing.
In 2006 I became a visiting social sciences professor at a university in the industrial mega-city of Chongqing. The city was unknown outside China then but was subsequently made famous by Bo Xilai, whose career as a high-flying Party apparatchik with populist tendencies was brought to an abrupt end earlier in 2012. His high profile anti-corruption campaigns in Chongqing and cavalier attitudes to rule of law, not to mention his unconcealed ambitions, proved too much for the nervous Beijing leadership to stomach so he was sacked. He and his wife are under house arrest as the Party leadership plots and schemes through the once in a decade leadership transition scheduled for October 2012.
Despite the loathing he engendered in his fellow Party bosses, Bo was s shrewdly tapping into ordinary people’s many and longstanding discontents. In the cities and the countryside conflicts and protests spring up all the time without warning, usually about land abruptly sequestrated without adequate compensation, or about maladministration by cynical, corrupt local Party bosses. Hapless junior officials often clumsily exacerbate the discontents. They usually seek first to cover up the complaints and, failing that, punish the complainants. The wrong remains without redress. My job was to demonstrate methods of participation or consultation that might help officials to know what was going on (the most important objective, as it turned out) and do something positive to calm these situations down (less significant for them, but important to me). Communist control makes surveys and media reports unreliable bellwethers in China, so I had to think of a different method.
The true longings of ordinary people can be found hanging on trees in any Buddhist or Daoist temple. Devotees write their wishes on slips of paper or cardboard and tie them to a branch of the tree, asking for success in exams or family health, praying that the wind will blow their prayers to heaven. The wishes often outnumber leaves. Wish trees seemed a good solution to what seemed my biggest challenge – getting people to speak their minds. So I erected a version of a wish tree in several neighbourhoods in Chongqing, far from city centres and shopping malls, in broken down factories and housing estates where farmers had been warehoused after their land was confiscated. In fact my wish tree was a large hoarding, the size of a billboard, with a big picture of a leafless tree. The leaves were on postcards and people were asked to write their wishes and fears on the leaf cards, then they stuck them to the branches of the trees. As I watched more than a thousand people posting their fears and dreams on the tree without inhibition and in the presence of officials and foreigners, I realized the Chinese reputation for fear and stoicism in the face of authoritarianism was another misleading myth.
One elderly lady, short and stout, came hurrying into the square where the Wish Tree had been erected and the crowd had gathered. She walked up to a smart looking municipal official and unloaded her frustrations. Her small pension was not being paid. She had nothing to live on. The official just stared back at her with a fixed smile. Other officials and onlookers tried to intervene. She shook them off, punching one of them, and started loudly sobbing. Someone brought her a plastic stool to sit on. Suddenly crumpled and shrunken, she dabbed her eyes. The senior official slid away inconspicuously and I moved in to talk to her. “My husband is dead. He was a Communist. He fought for liberation in 1949. They (the officials) must serve the people.” She rubbed her stomach, “I’ve had this lump for a long time. I think it’s cancer. I can’t afford to go to the doctor and I haven’t told my daughter. She lives far away. I don’t want to ruin her life. Anyway I’m old and I’ve had a good life.” Without any access to free or unsubsidized healthcare this woman had no choice but to turn to her child, possibly bringing destitution on everyone. Alternatively she could do nothing and just let the illness, maybe cancer, develop, resigning herself to her fate. I have Chinese friends whose entire family have been financially ruined by a serious illness afflicting a single member of their extended family.
Similarly fervent sentiments to those of the old lady were expressed on the wish cards from more than 1400 respondents.
“I am a laid off worker from the tyre factory. When the factory went bankrupt my length of service was one year short and my age was one year short of retirement. I worked for 29 years. I got an industrial injury at work and until now I haven’t gone back even for a day. Please may I ask what can I do with my life when they closed the factory and my daughter is studying in university? Now the thing that worries me the most is what I can do with my life. I worked so many years on a job which is poisonous and damaging. Now I don’t even have health insurance. My wish is to go to the leaders and get some living allowance and in the future when I’m retired to have health insurance.”
Without jobs, skills or money, their insecurity is compounded by relying on only one child in their old age. In the countryside, hundreds of millions of people are surplus labour but household registration means they cannot move to the city without permission. Millions move anyway, listlessly wandering and drifting on the margins of the city. Except for the chosen few, the Chinese dream of reform, prosperity, security and perhaps even freedom has died. These dispossessed people, neither timid nor politically motivated but bewildered and traumatized by endless upheaval, will settle the fate of the Party, if the military lets them.
The End of the Chinese Dream: Why Chinese people fear the future by Gerard Lemos is published by Yale University Press