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The challenge from China

What are the superpower’s plans for the future?

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February 11, 2021

When your maid keeps breaking your rice bowls, but she’s so beautiful you don’t want to sack her, what should you do? The 18th-century Qing scholar and politician Ji Yun solved this dilemma in Notes of the Thatched Abode of Close Observations: in his parable, the employer simply buys sturdier bowls made of iron, so his hot-but-clumsy serving-girl couldn’t break them.

After the Communists came to power in China in 1949, all workers were made similarly unsackable: private enterprise was abolished and workers were guaranteed employment and subsistence by the state. Under Mao, society was organised into danwei, administrative work units — and sometimes physically gated compounds — tasked with supplying accommodation, food, education and rudimentary healthcare in exchange for close political surveillance.

This material security was known as the “iron rice bowl”, after Ji Yun’s story: a social contract in which each worker could be sure of a position. But when Deng Xiaoping began the process of transforming China from a planned economy to a “socialist market economy” in 1978, that iron rice bowl was melted down for scrap in the country’s newly roaring manufacturing economy.

Since then, 850 million Chinese people have been lifted out of poverty. In the last 20 years, its annual GDP growth has remained above 6% — compared to 1.4% in the EU — and in some years has been as high as 14%. Today, China is less “iron rice bowl” than, as President Xi Jinping famously phrased it, “capitalism with Chinese characteristics”.

But the price of becoming competitive has been, well, competition. Beijing implemented policy changes in the late 1980s to foster competition between schools and students; entrance exams have never been so difficult. Meanwhile, a good university place is key to “making it”, while top performers in the gaokao exam — their equivalent to A Levels —become local media celebrities.

Nor does the race end after young people reach adulthood. Much as in the West, young Chinese adults face rounds of unpaid internships and, in Beijing, rents even less affordable than those in London. Job opportunities have become scarcer and more dependent on personal connections, while the cost of living has outstripped earnings growth.

The winners in this (increasingly stratified and hereditary) race become multi-millionaire social media celebrities. The losers, well, lose. Indeed, some have embraced a self-conscious policy of averageness dubbed “Buddhist Youth” — someone who seeks to go with the flow, for example by eating the same food every day, or allowing their partner to make all the decisions. Some take this even further. “Sang culture” (“sang” means dejected or dispirited) is gaining popularity among Chinese millennials, with “Sang Tea” — a joke on the popular brand “Lucky Tea” — now selling beverages called “My Ex-Girlfriend Is Marrying Someone With Rich Parents Lemon Juice”.

It’s a bleak worldview that bears comparison with the rise of the Western “failson”. This is a style of millennial miserabilism that describes a young person who has opted out from society, not with countercultural optimism like the hippies of the Sixties, but bleak, internet-addicted apathy. Sardonically echoing President Xi’s exhortation to bring “positive energy” to all aspects of life, Sang Tea’s slogan “a cup of negative energy a day” resonates with those “failsons with Chinese characteristics” who have found that positive energy doesn’t always deliver positive results.

China’s modernisation has also echoed the West’s “millennial burnout” in producing dropouts — albeit with Chinese characteristics. Some are fleeing to lower-pressure regional cities with hipster cultures, or checking out altogether in favour of life as a member of a mountainside commune. And along with the failsons and dropouts have come — as Qi Chen noted in these pages — “feminists with Chinese characteristics”.

So whether they inhabit Chinese state capitalism or the Western “free market” variety, it appears that millennials have some common traits. The escalating sense of competition, pervasive internet culture, consumer excess and dwindling opportunities that characterise millennial life in both worlds seem to produce relatively apolitical individuals trapped between shopping and pessimism, and ambivalent about relations between the sexes and commitments of family life.

Yet we’re used to thinking about ideology as the force that drives politics; people come up with ideas, they spread, they get implemented — that’s how the world changes. But watching China’s warp-speed economic development produce sociocultural changes that are, in many ways, similar to those which have transformed the West makes me wonder: is politics just how we rationalise things that are happening anyway?

Consider, for example, the seemingly grassroots Western social revolution of the Sixties, which sought to challenge traditional norms and obligations, as well as the duty to respect our elders. Since then, we’ve seen a steady shrinking in the size of households and rapid growth in single-person households. (In 2016, EU data showed that two-thirds of households were composed of only one or two people. Households of five or six people accounted for a mere 6.5% of Europeans.)

No such organic challenge to traditional structures and duties occurred in China. Instead, it was imposed from the top down by Beijing, in the name of economic development. Social scientists were already reporting in 1984 on the concerted effort by the Chinese government to disrupt traditional family bonds in the interests of mass urbanisation and modernisation. It worked: in the last 20 years, the proportion of its population living in urban areas has gone from 20% to 50%. Meanwhile, between 1982 and 2010, multigenerational households have plummeted and single-couple and single-person households have seen rapid growth.

Similarly, some in the West blame changes such as declining interest in marriage and falling birth rates on feminism. But in China, feminism looks more like the byproduct of state-imposed changes in social structure that have redirected resources towards girls and lowered incentives to embrace traditional roles.

So do ideologies such as feminism cause economic shifts, or vice versa? It’s difficult to say. But a look at UK GDP against divorce rates over time suggests that periods of economic growth tend to coincide with spikes in the divorce rate. This is more difficult to track in China, as divorce was relatively difficult to obtain until 2003; but divorce rates have increased steadily since then, and nearly doubled between 2009 and 2019.

In this, China reflects a global shift that has seen marriage rates fall worldwide, while the birth rate is crashing in nearly every country around the globe. Whether social changes emerge organically or through the state, and whether growth causes or is caused by social changes, economic development seems difficult to separate from the attenuation of social and cultural structures.

None of this is to imply a Eurocentric idea of “development” which assumes China must necessarily follow the same trajectory as the West. But watching similar trends play out in two cultures as ideologically distinct as Britain and China suggests that societies in both East and West do share some social characteristics, in as much as they share material conditions and cultural pressures. (If this is true, it implies the popular pastime of dunking on millennials for their attitude rather misses the bigger picture, as does dunking on the liquefying impact of social liberalism.)

The CCP certainly seems more willing than governments in the West to impose top-down measures designed to mitigate millennial disaffection and the weakening of social norms, for example in its recent announcement of measures to combat the “feminisation” of male youths. But it remains to be seen whether these will have the desired impact.

Beijing, after all, devotes considerable effort to imbuing Chinese youth with patriotic fervour and the will to strive and succeed. But the fact that “sang” culture exists at all suggests some forces can act even more powerfully on China’s youth than the massed pressure of its propaganda regime.

In any case, it seems likely that as long as China embraces a market economy, it will face the question of how best to mitigate the impact that a market economy has on social structures. So far, the liquefying effect of the “capitalism” bit of Xi’s “capitalism with Chinese characteristics” seems to be mostly held in abeyance by the social policies that make up the “Chinese characteristics” part.

For though many of Xi’s measures seem monstrous from a Western standpoint, from a Chinese perspective they may appear reasonable trade-offs: certainly, while growth may be driving a new progressivism and hammering the country’s birth rate, support for the regime remains broadly high. So for now, the Faustian bargain of a growth-oriented economy still holds, and President Xi retains the Mandate of Heaven regardless of a few disaffected tea-drinkers and commune-dwellers.

But should mass material enrichment slow in earnest or even — as in the West — begin trickling back upwards, the regime may need to find other means of fostering solidarity among Chinese youth. The rest of the world should beware that moment: because in the absence of peaceful growth, the quickest route to national solidarity is warfare.