Has China traded its soul for financial gain?
Frustrated and disillusioned with life in China’s third largest city, Guangzhou, lifelong resident Mr.Yu decided to leave in a bid to see if he could re-discover what used to make him proud to be Chinese – a strong identity and a sense of moral integrity. The question is this: Has China sold its soul for financial gain?
Mr. Yu is a 50 year old man who was born and raised in Guangzhou. For 20 years, he worked reluctantly for an agency that introduced job opportunities to those looking for employment in the hectic city of 15 million. For the past six years he has lived in Shuhe, Yunnan province, where he spends most of his time reading books on Buddhism, and watching various farm animals waltz by from the outdoor living room of his beautifully simple living quarters. He sub-lets rooms in the building he has rented if and when it suits him – but earning lots of money has never been Yu’s purpose in life.
Yu’s facial expression switched between a genuinely warm smile and a display of deep sadness as he talked about Guangzhou.
“Guangzhou is a unique and special place in the minds of us Chinese people. Its proximity to Hong Kong allowed its residents lots of contact with foreign countries which the rest of China didn’t have access to. The British, who controlled Hong Kong at the time, offered refuge to any Guangdong resident that managed to sneak out of China successfully – and many of us did. Those people would find work in Hong Kong, and send gifts home from foreign countries to their families that were impossible to buy on the mainland. Hong Kong’s international identity rubbed off on us, and the people of Guangzhou knew a lot more about world affairs than people in even Beijing or Shanghai. That’s what made us different to everybody else.”
Thoroughly fed up with the rapid and unhealthy changes that were taking place all around him, Yu decided to leave Guangzhou in 2005.
“In 1978, China opened its doors to the rest of the world. The focus was the economy and they accepted the need for foreign investment. A ‘successful’ experiment was carried out in Shenzhen, turning the small fishing village that neighbors Hong Kong into a “Special Economic Zone”. Foreign companies felt comfortable in Hong Kong and many were already established, so it made sense to focus on trade between companies in Hong Kong and Shenzhen, due to their proximity. As Shenzhen developed, so did Guangzhou, Foshan and Dongguan. This had knock-on effects for the economy of the whole province, and things were looking up. Lots of Hong Kong residents are originally from Guangdong, and they were happy to help the economic advancement of their hometowns. They went to Guangdong and set up factories to manufacture goods for export. This created lots of jobs, relatively well-paid for its kind, and led to tens of millions of people from inner-China arriving in Guangdong to work. My job, however, was to help people find work, and to help employers find employees. Most of China was still very poor at this point, and I understand that coming to Guangzhou offered them a chance of a less miserable life. Unfortunately, after earning what they had come for, their desire for money became an unhealthy obsession. I saw the whole society change, and slowly but surely, people would do anything to have more cash. People would lie to their own loved ones, cheat each other, and create all manner of shameless scams. Nobody looked out for anybody but to them it didn’t matter. Migrant workers would spend all their money on prostitutes and alcohol, and eventually turn to crime to feed their habits. Everybody in the city had become a crook, so I left. I wanted money, too, but I wasn’t willing to let it take over my life.”
Mr. Yu now lives in the small Naxi village of Shuhe, tucked away in North-West Yunnan province, where he has been for six years. He has found an inner-peace that he lacked while in Guangzhou. Here is his explanation as to why he chose to live in Shuhe.
“I needed a place where I wasn’t surrounded by this kind of mentality. A place that still holds dear the aspects of Chinese Culture that makes me proud. My love for life had been drained out of me by the changes afoot in Guangzhou, and I travelled to many different parts of the country to find it again. The tiny village of Shuhe, in Yunnan province is a place where I immediately felt at home, despite it being located 2000km from my place of birth. This was a place I thought I would be able to develop, spiritually, but I hesitated and returned to Guangzhou. After six months of pining for a return, I finally did, and since then I’ve been here. I’m happy with my decision and feel that I am moving forward in my quest, but I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to find what I’m looking for, though I remain hopeful, and Shuhe is probably as good a place as any to try.”
Mr. Yu discussed at length the differences between the values of traditional China compared to the China of today. I sensed a great feeling of pride within him as he talked of times gone by, and an equally strong feeling of disappointment as he spoke of more recent developments.
“In China, any period of history after the dynasties of Tang and Chao cannot be called ‘traditional’. At that time, great civilizations of the world came regularly to learn from China. Since then, other dynasties have come and gone, none able to resurrect the admiration and respect we used to command. Between then and now, China has been attacked by Mongolians, Japanese and European forces. We have even endured bloody civil war. The country was in a mess in the early-mid 20th century and when the Communists took over – Mao Zedong took advantage. By uniting the uneducated masses and castigating anybody with any knowledge or ability to think critically, he inadvertently brought the country to its knees. He ruled with an iron fist and you either submitted or paid the consequences. We had to believe what the government told us to believe and do what they told us to do. We were forced to think how they told us to think, and this turned the whole country into obedient robots, bereft of any feeling, emotion or culture. Guangdong, far away from Beijing and already influenced by the outside world, felt no connection whatsoever with Mao, and didn’t always tow the party line. European troops in our province were welcomed, and indeed we sold them food and offered them accommodation. In the evenings, locals would watch from the mountains as conflict broke out in the streets below.
When Deng Xiaoping opened China’s market to outside investors, we were finally given a purpose in life – to earn money. “To get rich is glorious” was Deng Xiaoping’s most famous quote. Very quickly that mantra took on a significant role in destroying any remaining morality or integrity that was left after Mao’s regime. In 1985, there was a famous fraud case in Huizhou, Guangdong, in which the head of the city’s police headquarters was found guilty of using his position to steal and extort lots of money. He was to pay his debt to society with his life. Immediately before he was put to death, he was asked if he wanted to express any remorse with his last words. He announced that his only regret was that he would never be able to drink the expensive alcohol he had managed to get hold of through one of his dodgy deals. His last words accurately represent the types of thoughts that people have in China today.”
As rural places a long way away from the famed east-coast cities start to feel the ‘benefits’ of China’s unprecedented economic growth, I asked Mr. Yu whether he thought rural residents from remote parts of the country had been affected in the same way as city dwellers.
“As a result of outsiders such as me bringing money in to the community and thus raising local rent prices, even this village has been affected by the economic boom. Pleasingly though, the people here are very community oriented and it hasn’t corrupted them. They are simple people who want simple things from life. Although dishonest thoughts may flash through some heads here, they are never acted upon and I am yet to hear a tale of someone falling financial victim to a scam. Rural people in China, generally, are not particularly ambitious and don’t want for much, so they control their desire for money much better than city-folk. These people are now the only remaining guardians of China’s ancient system of values.”
I wondered whether these changes had affected everybody, or just the younger generation. Mr. Yu concluded it was a problem much more prevalent in one age group and not the other.
“Elderly rural folk have never had any money to speak of, and as a result they don’t miss it. They are not of an impressionable age and have been around too long to have their way of looking at things changed. Bright lights and promises of money are not what get them up in the morning. The contrast with the rural youth is stark, in Shuhe some Naxi children refuse to speak their own language. They have been led to believe that it is useless by an education that places no emphasis on the importance of one’s cultural heritage. Knowing the Naxi language doesn’t lead directly to a high salary, so it’s rendered obsolete. It is definitely a problem which affects young people more than old people. One day, though, these youngsters will be our elderly citizens, and that is a frightening thought.”
Yu predicts grave consequences as a result of these changes for the future of China. He explained in depth why he thinks China is moving further and further away from where it should be going.
“Factories in Guangdong which have facilitated the growth of our economy are finding it harder to find workers. Locals regard factory work as something which is beneath them and rural people are less willing to leave home and work in a place like Guangzhou than before. They know they’d have to give a lot to earn a little. In the not so distant past, a mere sniff of escaping poverty (a job in an east-coast factory) would be enough for a young adult to leave everything they know behind. The one-child policy and the spoilt children it produces might have something to do with the fact that the rural youth are no longer willing to experience hardship, so they stay at home where they are safe and their parents will house them. The problem here is that they don’t know anything about how to contribute to life in their own villages – they don’t know how to work the land. They don’t know much about their own traditional ways of living, but at the same time, they are not willing to learn how to function in an urban area. Some of them prefer to stay in education for as long as they possibly can – not because they want to study, but because they are scared of stepping out into such a vicious society. When they finally do, they find themselves in very competitive market with all the other over qualified and under experienced people, and finding a job can be impossible. They end up sitting around in their hometowns, drinking and fighting, not contributing anything to the development of the country. China is the “workshop of the world” but at this rate it won’t be for long. With no more cheap labor, how will the economy continue to grow? People with money send their offspring to the west to be educated, from where they rarely return. So we are left with uneducated, lazy or plain scared people to make up our society.”
Mr. Yu isn’t sure whether the government acknowledges the knock-on effects that will come of what they have created, but is certain that is not overly bothered. He speaks in a cynical tone as he expresses his opinion.
“As long as their pockets are sufficiently lined then whether they realize isn’t important – because nothing will change. The saddest part is that we have no say in who is in power – so it’s an almost impossible task for us to change it either. Besides, the minds of too many have already been permanently corrupted, so there aren’t enough people who want change now to make a difference. How can we have a voice when the media is controlled by the government and the internet so rigidly manipulated? No matter what they say – the fact is that they are taking away the moral fiber of our society piece by piece and I don’t believe anything they say. They don’t let me use my hands to vote, so I’ll use my legs to voice my opinion, by leaving with my son as soon as he finishes high school.”
Mr. Yu’s son will graduate from high school in one year. I wanted to know what kind of efforts Mr. Yu takes to communicate his message to his son, and was interested to hear his evaluation of how successful he has been at doing so.
“He is in Guangzhou and we are in regular contact. I try my best to pass on to him all that is good about China, but it’s extremely difficult. I hope my efforts aren’t futile; my worst fear is that this society gets a stranglehold on my son.”
“I wasn’t even sure that I wanted a child if it had to grow up in this society. In the end I did have one, my son, who is 17 years old. All I can do now is protect him until he’s old enough to leave for a foreign university.
One way to show how hard it is to be a good father in China was a situation that took place on September 11th, 2001. My son returned home from school and told me that his teacher had them all sit down together and clap and cheer as images of the events unfolding were shown to them on a projector. When I told him exactly what I thought, what is right, he was confused. His teacher and his father were saying two different things, and he couldn’t get his head around it. Another example is of the red tie that every student in China must wear. Its color represents the blood that was lost during the efforts of the communist party’s bloody ascent to power. Although the party, in my opinion, has done nothing to improve our country, the children are still forced to sing songs praising the regime. It’s too difficult for me to fight against a whole system which is very sophisticated in the way it brainwashes our people. Firstly, it makes us believe that we must have lots of money – and to do that we must pass exams and thus attend good universities. To know the correct answers of many questions in our examinations, though, students must spend lots of time studying the communist party’s version of events. Over time, our children end up believing what they see in their textbooks. I don’t feel I’m able to make sure this society doesn’t get the better of my son and that’s why I want to take him away.”
Based on the words of Mr. Yu, it is fair to conclude that a minority of Chinese are not willing to swap genuine happiness for monetary reward. There are still people determined to preserve traditional Chinese values but they are a dying breed. China is today a dynamic and forward thinking place, but at what cost have its economic triumphs come? A very high one – for if Mr. Yu’s predictions are correct, then in time it shall be proved that the government of China have received the raw end of the deal – a deal that they proposed themselves.