Rising China leaves millions behind

gerhard-hoffstaeder-thumb Dr Gerhard Hoffstaedter

E-mail: g.hoffstaedter@latrobe.edu.au

This opinion piece first appeared in The Canberra Times on 26 January 2011.

We are approaching a one-lane feeder lane on a massive spaghetti junction in Shanghai; there are elevated expressways either side of us. As we draw closer we are stalled by a traffic jam that encapsulates the China I have experienced the past couple of weeks of travel and work. We are slowed down by a truck that is barely moving up the overpass, overladen with goods, which spill out on either side and tower high above. Trapped behind the truck are swish black cars flashing their lights, impatiently trying to get past and almost causing a collision.

This is China: a slow and overbearing state moves gradually ahead of the increasingly impatient middle-class, which wants to proceed at its own speed. Of course this isn’t possible, just as we were not able to pass the truck. The road is too narrow and the truck remains firmly in place, blocking everyone behind him. The impatience is palpable in everyday life. The middle-class in particular is eager to move ahead in the rat race to capitalise on the economic liberalisation in China. This rat race is built on real economic growth and ever-expanding riches, but has also engendered a huge gulf between the winners and losers of the new China.

Whilst migrant workers from the rural hinterland labour day and night on new city skyscrapers and sprawling suburban estates to house an estimated population of 20 million people in Shanghai, the elite goes shopping in style at the Super Brand Mall or at an exclusive downtown stretch of designer and luxury brand shop. The gap is widening between those who buy trendy clothes at European and American outlets, drink Starbucks coffee and go on holiday abroad and those who shop in neighbourhood discount shops, drink tea and spend their annual leave over Chinese New Year in their home villages. This is a real problem for the Chinese state as it promises more of everything to everyone.

More jobs, more money, more roads, more cars, more excess and more consumption. A rampant consumerism, part and parcel of the American form of predatory capitalism, has taken hold. The middle- and upper-class has embraced it and is out to catch up with their comrades in Sydney, New York and London.

Shanghai has firmly established itself as a global city, not least by hosting the recent world EXPO. The China Pavilion remains open to the public and displays Chinese ambitions to global power status with a depiction of a glorified past on which a glorious future is being built.

One exhibit presents a ‘typical’ living room from the 1950s and subsequent decades up until 2008. The latter was furnished in IKEA style, crisp with subtle colours, complete with oversize LCD TV. The modern day living room exhibit is the only one featuring stairs to an imaginary second floor, as opposed to the recreated living rooms of the past designed to indicate a single story flat. Depicting such transformation and new found wealth as ‘national’ is highly aspirational. In fact, many of the Chinese visitors pressing past the exhibits had not seen such affluent living rooms, let alone reside in one. There were chuckles and smirks amongst visitors crowded around the ‘2010 living room’.

It is clear that China wants to portray itself as a middle-class nation, developed and rich. This can cause aspiration, but also disillusion amongst those for whom the middle-class dream remains just that: a dream. These migrant and un- or low skilled workers must return to their villages when the economy turns sour. They are often bonded labourers, with little freedom and little pay.

This disillusioned part of society has the real potential to unsettle China’s rise to world power in so far as the state has to keep a constant watch for ‘trouble-makers’, whilst placating them with better labour legislation, better working conditions and symbolic gestures. One of these was the provision of special waiting rooms at Beijing train stations for migrant workers travelling home for Chinese New Year.

At the same time the desires and hopes of the middle-class have to be attended to, for they too have a potential to upset China. The rising inflation and housing squeeze in major metropolitan areas have put pressure on young Chinese and cast a shadow on their aspirations to move into the 2008 EXPO living room. They demand more from their politicians and officials and they want it quickly.

Just like the cars stuck behind the truck on the overpass, they cannot wait. As the truck finally reaches the expressway everyone scrambles to pass it as soon as possible, leaving it behind in a second. That is the threat the Chinese state faces now.

Dr Gerhard Hoffstaedter is a research fellow with La Trobe University's Institute for Human Security and co-founder of the Melbourne Free University Project.