Newly affluent still have wool pulled over their eyes

Shoba Narayan (Writer)

Oct 17, 2010


My Chinese tour guide has not heard of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner.

I am in Beijing and have just read the news in the lounge of the Fairmont hotel in Beijing. The tour guide who takes me to the Forbidden City is a young, bubbly lifelong Beijinger named Sharon. She has a two-year-old son and works part-time as a guide, she says in fluent English. She is 29, educated, clearly bright and throws out statistics with the virtuosity of an archer shooting arrows.

Do you know how much Beijing’s population is? … 20 million. Do you know how many cars there are in Beijing? … 4.7 million. Car sales in China could hit 17 million this year, up 25 per cent from last year. China has overtaken the US as the world’s largest car manufacturer and seller with an increase of about 40 per cent year-on-year.

Sharon rattles off these numbers as we sit parked in traffic on the second ring road, behind a long line of cars. To change the subject, I ask her if she knows of the Chinese dissident who won the Peace Prize. No, she shakes her head. Is he famous?

I Google Liu Xiaobo’s name to make sure I have the spelling right and get an error message. I Google “Nobel Peace Prize” and draw a blank. It is one thing to hear about Chinese censorship in the news. It is quite another to live in a world in which Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are inaccessible. This, then, is the Chinese paradox. The country that is on its way to becoming the next big superpower is treating its citizens as children. And many of them who are young and have never left China, such as my tour guide Sharon, do not even know what they are missing. Sharon is happy here, she says. And proud to be Chinese.


“Perhaps history will repeat itself,” she says as we stand outside the Emperor’s bedroom in the Forbidden City. “Imperial China’s time has come.”

Thanks to double-digit GDP growth and its hard-working people, China is heaving and morphing right before our very eyes. Buildings tower above hutongs (narrow old-city lanes lined with houses), and entire new cities are being created to make room for the people. Most of the Chinese who service tourists ride the subway for two hours (one-way) to work at offices and hotels in the central business district. Skyrocketing property prices are making the Chinese question fundamental assumptions – such as the preference for a son. In China, the boy’s side pays for the marriage and the housing.

A simple wedding at, say, the Crowne Plaza, costs 70,000 yuan (Dh38,695), says an administrative assistant I meet. Parents of sons have to put away 500,000 yuan for what is called a “marriage fund”, or a housing downpayment. As home prices go through the roof, a daughter suddenly seems more desirable than a son to the pragmatic Chinese mindset that enjoys money with less angst than say, more Buddhist cultures.

In Shanghai and across China about 25,000 new people sign up with small trading companies such as Guotai Junan Securities to trade on the local stock market. Unlike the US or the UK, where individuals tend to invest through employee pension schemes or through mutual fund companies, here in China, a growing number of investors prefer to trade every day. For a small commission, companies such as Guotai Junan will open an account and provide the client access to the latest market numbers.

Students, retirees and middle managers come in and sit at a computer terminal, trading money, talking stocks, smoking cigarettes and comparing notes. One man named Hu worked at a car company, making 2,000 yuan per month before quitting to trade full-time. Now, he says, he makes 10,000 yuan per month from his investments alone, and has more than three million yuan in assets.

The world may talk about currency pressures but here on the ground all those complex macroeconomic issues take on a human tone.

This week’s issue of That’s Shanghai, a local magazine, talks about “Shanghai’s wealth gap”, in which a trainee chef at Malone’s restaurant makes 1,200 yuan a month; a 24-year-old marketing assistant makes 4,500 yuan; a product manager, 23,000 yuan; an advertising executive 66,000 yuan; and an ex-investment banker named Jane, who now simply trades her capital of 340 million yuan and plays video games for fun. All these people are participants in the gyrations of the dollar, euro and the yuan, but they see it through a different prism.

Consider: China’s trade surplus last month fell 15.7 per cent to settle on a five-month low of US$16.88 billion, (Dh62bn), down nearly 40 per cent from the July surplus of $28.7bn. Exports last month rose 25.1 per cent compared with September last year. But here is how the Chinese view these numbers. A Xinhua news agency survey conducted last month found that the profit margin for export-oriented labour-intensive industries such as the manufacturing of garments, toys, footwear and car parts has dropped below 5 per cent this year “leaving little room for those companies to afford a stronger yuan”, as the Shanghai Daily says. In that same newspaper, Liang Yaowen, the director of the foreign trade department of Guangdong Province, where most of these export businesses are located, was quoted as saying: “If we bow to United States government pressure and let the yuan rise further and faster, the outlook for Chinese exporters will become very dire.”

The hard-working exporters and the sweat shops they run are only one small piece of the pie. The affluent in China are much more visible.

In Beijing, for instance, travel companies say that wealthy Chinese now spend more than $8,000 for game-hunting vacations in South Africa shooting ostrich, impala, zebras and blesbok and then curing and stuffing the animals to adorn their living rooms or offices.

The question then becomes: if the people are so prosperous, why can’t the government become more open? Regimes that control citizens’ activities may make sense in bleak times when resources are scarce and hard to distribute. But China is pulling millions of its people out of poverty every year and putting them on the road to affluence; and the rich, history demonstrates, are not often the revolutionaries. Then why control them so much?

No one that I met in China had an answer for that. Not the hundreds of visitors walking about in Tiananmen Square.

Not even the European expatriates who were thronging the posh bars of Sanlitun in droves.

Shoba Narayan is a journalist based in Bangalore and the author of Monsoon Diary

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