Chinese Society: Racing Forward, Not Cracking Up

Chinese society is racing forward but it is not cracking up or spinning off its axis. The traditional pillars of individual identity -- the family and the nation -- remain robust.

True, there are stresses -- "spiritual pollution" -- that disorient and make people feel "less safe" than 10 or 20 years ago. Clans are torn apart by geographic dispersion as sons and daughters, at all socioeconomic levels, wander far from hometowns in search of better jobs and higher pay. The almighty renminbi is a new God, sanctified by a government that has forfeited ideological purity to shepherd the masses toward an illusory materialistic high ground. Religion, meanwhile, is still a dangerous balm, particularly in the countryside where membership in illegal underground organizations, mostly Christian, put millions of adherents at great risk. Digital technology has created a new generation of socially-stunted video game addicts, unplugged from offline reality. Sixth Generation filmmakers such as Lou Ye, Wang Xiaoshuai, Zhang Yuan and Jia Zhangke depict urban blight and crushing monotony.

Few, however, like their movies.

Not Hopeless. The Chinese do not feel helpless. Unlike many Japanese brethren, hardly any "drop out" of society. Beyond a miniscule sub-tribe of zhai nan zhai nu ("home boys and girls'), there are no shut-ins here. A rising economic tide, one that has already lifted 200 million souls out of abject poverty, has resulted in disorientation but not despair. China has one of the highest "GINI coefficients" in the world; the gulf between rich and poor is striking.

But a visit to any lower-tier city is also heartening. They sense they are at life's starting line and they are thirsty for a piece, even a bit, of action. A typical quote: "No, I will not become a millionaire. But I can get a good enough job to be a better father." There are few blank faces. Eyes sparkle. Foreigners still elicit giggling curiosity. Factory workers, thousands of miles from home, saunter hand-in-hand through factory gates. Young men release frustration on ubiquitous basketball courts. Every man derives great joy from the latest (free) mobile phone app or (illegal) DVD. As the government harnesses inland industrial prowess through a combination of tax incentives and massive infrastructure investment, rural incomes are rising. Modest, though modern, restaurants teem with activity, a cacophonous delight of bantering, bragging and gossip. Yes, there are problems. Health care is a shambles. Thousands of underemployed young college graduates, paid no more than migrant construction workers, populate squalid "ant communities," abused by employers, unprotected by the system. But even these folks have not given up. Their willingness to endure near-barbaric living conditions is a signal of hope for a better job, and a better life, down the road. As one 23-year-old computer salesman said to me, "I don't have a choice today. But I will tomorrow."

Family Ties. What sustains the Middle Kingdom during an era of tumult? Aggregate optimism -- i.e., faith that the government's strategy is working -- is one important factor. But, more subtly, most Chinese are not "lost." The family -- the clan -- is intact. Divorce rates have spiked as wives either escape abusive, philandering spouses or recalibrate their definition of family "harmony" and marital fulfillment. But husbands who abandon their wives and kids are scorned. (One former colleague whispered to me, "Have you heard about my scandal? I remarried.") Educated Chinese are marrying later; the average age in primary cities is around 27 for men and 25 for women. But practically everyone exchange vows before 30. A walk through any urban park, brimming with prideful young parents and grandparents, puts to rest any notion that modern Chinese are "alone." In Shanghai, couples spend an average of $20,000 on elaborate wedding parties, a three-ringed extravaganza that: a) declares an intention to engage gainfully in broader society and b) reinforces the clan's standing as the heart of identity. All children, regardless of income or class, send money to parents as a token of respect and manifestation of deep obligation. And, even as the number of nursing homes increases, a son's or daughter's greatest shame remains "abandoning" elderly parents to the "cold system. "

National Pride. In addition, the Chinese define themselves not only as citizens of the People's Republic of China but as apostles of a great Chinese civilization. National affiliation, and growing confidence in China's place in the world, is a tremendous stabilizer. Pragmatically, it fuels faith in future financial stability. Emotionally, it bolsters individual identities.

The Confucian Conflict, the tension between restrictive regimentation and trenchant ambition, results in repression, an unquenchable thirst for achievement and acknowledgment. But, fortunately, frustrated individuals can project dreams of glory onto the nation. As one participant in the Beijing 2008 torch run said to me, "China is great, so I'm great!" Every achievement -- from the success of the Olympics and Shanghai Expo to high-speed trains and 10% GDP gains -- is deeply satisfying, penetrating the heart of Chinese desire. Cynicism regarding corrupt officials is wide-spread; however, today, few scoff at the greatness of "Chineseness." The Chinese are proud to be Chinese. Even if they are unable to afford an Audi car or Armani suit, patriotic fervor soothes the soul. Of course, there is a fine line between "patriotism" and "nationalism." And underlying individual insecurity and occasional self-deprecation, not to mention relentless propaganda regarding the foreign suppression of China's ascent, often leads to jingoist outburst, particularly against the Japanese. Online chat rooms are hornets' nests of over-the-top zealotry, leading some to believe the new generation is "angry." But this conclusion is a dramatic oversimplification. China wants to engage with the world. HSBC's campaign of "unlocking the world's potential" has been well received. If the Middle Kingdom does not feel "rejected," nationalistic indignation will not boil over.

Entrenched Anti-Individualism. The solidity of country and clan as identity pillars ensures China remains deeply anti-individualistic. Rebellion against the system is a non-starter. Various youth "sub-tribes" intermittently bubble to the surface of contemporary urban life. Affiliation with "vegetable males" (Chinese metrosexuals), "Taobao maniacs" (on-line shopping aficionados) and "Art and Culture gangs" represent a level of self-expressive drive heretofore unseen across the landscape. And "ego gratification," nursed by proliferating avenues for professional advancement, is a huge need.

"Societal acknowledge," however, not "pursuit of happiness," is still tantamount to success. Education, the weapon of forward advancement, will become even more prized than it is today. But, still, liberal arts majors, as opposed to "bankable" engineering or accounting degrees, will always be second tier. Few will dare to see a psychologist for fear of losing face or being branded "sick." Gays still walk voluntarily into prison marriages. Failure to have a child is still a grave disappointment. Travel is still more about "status" than enjoyment. (Overseas shoppers spend much more on souvenirs than hotels or dining.)

China, now and forever, remains a society of "belongers." Outsiders are, now and forever, outcasts.