Daily life in Beijing. Photograph: Getty Images.
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"No Romance": A short story from Xiaolu Guo

You can check any Chinese dictionary, there's no word for romance.

You can check any Chinese dictionary, there's no word for romance.

We say "Lo Man", copying the English pronunciation. What the fuck use was a word like romance to me anyway? There wasn't much of it about in China, and Beijing was the least romantic place in the whole universe. "Eat first, talk later," as old people say. Anyway, there was zero romance between me and Xiaolin.

We met when I was in this TV series set in the imperial court of the Qing dynasty. The whole set was a reproduction of what life looked like 300 years ago. The peonies in the vases were all made from paper, and the lotus lilies in the pond were plastic. I was playing one of the Princess's many servant girls, a role that required me to wear a thick fake plait. It was so heavy it pulled my head backwards. The make-up assistant had given me a disdainful look and sniffed at the length of my hair, before grabbing a handful of it and attaching the chunky braid. My scenes involved walking solemnly into the palace, pouring tea for my Princess, or combing my Princess's hair. All without speaking, of course.

Xiaolin was Assistant to the Producer. His job was to chauffeur the Producer around, bark out orders on his behalf, and basically eat, drink and sleep for him. As well as this he was expected to nanny the whole crew. The first time Xiaolin and I spoke was during a lunch break.

Every day we would all queue for lunchboxes. Key cast members and important behind-the-scenes people - the TV show's upper class - were given a large lunchbox worth eight yuan. The extras, the assistants and the runners received a smaller five-yuan lunchbox. Water was free.

I had collected my five-yuan lunchbox - pickled cucumber, rice with not more than one centimetre of meat - and was sitting alone in a corner to eat, avoiding conversation. I didn't want to talk to anyone. Instead I watched the crew members out of the corner of my eye as they discussed the actress's large bra, the Director's new mistress, or the recent news, featured in that day's Beijing Evening, that a serial killer was on the loose. Then I saw a young man walking towards me. It was Xiaolin. He was tall, with a body like a solid pine tree. He stopped in front of me, holding out one of the large lunchboxes.

"You like fish?" he said. "There's one left."

I have to say, I didn't feel anything special towards Xiaolin at first. He was too male, with his big feet and big hands. To me, that wasn't beautiful, or "city" enough. He looked like any young man from my village with dust in their hair. Which was strange, since he was actually a Beijinger born and bred. Anyway, eat first, talk later.

I took the lunchbox and started to devour the juicy pieces of carp. There was no doubt about it, it was tastier than my five-yuan lunch. By the time I had finished the fish, I was feeling warmer towards Xiaolin. In all the time I'd been in Beijing, no one had ever offered me a lunch like that. It was something.

Between mouthfuls, I cast furtive glances at my lunch-giver. I noticed his rice was swimming in a sea of black soy sauce. At that time I didn't know Xiaolin loved to add heaps of soy sauce to his rice. And he had to have a particular brand - Eight Dragons Soy Sauce. He could eat a whole bowl of rice with Eight Dragons and not need anything else. Anyway, as he tucked into his rice, he told me how he hated the hierarchy on the set. He hated the pretentious actors he had to deal with. Xiaolin said the best people were the extras. Then he said to me, "You don't look like an actress. You're not snooty enough."

Not snooty enough? I felt offended. But maybe he was right, otherwise why did I still only get lousy roles like "Woman walking over the bridge in the background" or "Waitress wiping some stupid table"?

Then he asked my age, and I asked his. That's the tradition in China. If we know each other's ages we can understand each other's past. We Chinese have been collective for so long, personal histories are not worth mentioning. Therefore as soon as Xiaolin and I knew how old the other was, we knew exactly what big shit had happened in our lives. The introduction of the One Child Policy shortly before our births, for instance, and the fact that, in 1985, two pandas were sent to the USA as a national gift and we had to sing a tearful panda song at school. 1989 was the Tiananmen Square student demonstration, etc. Anyway, Xiaolin was one year younger than me, so I assumed we were from the same generation. But when he said he had never once left Beijing, I changed my mind. It was clear he wouldn't understand why I had left home. Perhaps we were from different generations after all.

If I had been thinking straight, I would have realised that Xiaolin wasn't for me. His animal sign was the rooster, and they say the monkey and the rooster don't mix. But I was young. I didn't think about the future seriously. I was just in search of those shiny things . . .

Soon after Xiaolin gave me the lunchbox, the crew had a day off. He wanted to take me swimming. He said he knew a reservoir on the outskirts of Beijing that used to be a part of some Yuan Emperor's garden. I immediately agreed, although I didn't know how to swim. Forget the swimming, let's just see the kind of place Emperors used to go, I thought.

I warned him that I didn't have a swimming costume and I was scared of water, but Xiaolin said he would sort it out. So we went to Xidan department store and he bought me an apple-green bathing suit. Then we caught a bus on Long Peace Street, and we passed the solemn Forbidden City and the grand Friendship Hotel, in the end we crossed the whole capital. That was the highlight of the day. Everything else was pretty disappointing.

For a start, the place was nothing like an Emperor's garden. Just some boring little hill with a murky little pond in the middle. The scorching sun was beating down on our heads and even the pond looked thirsty. It wasn't that the landscape was ugly exactly, it's just that you wouldn't take a photo of it. Xiaolin pulled off his T-shirt and jumped straight into the mossy water. I turned around and changed into my brand-new swimsuit. When I looked back, I saw Xiaolin swimming off to the other side of the pond. He didn't give a damn that I was scared of water. In that moment, I thought that I would never learn how to swim if I stayed with him. Sometimes you just know these things, even if you can't explain how. It's fate, if you believe in fate.

As soon as my foot touched it, the shapeless liquid wanted to swallow me. The rock I was standing on was slippery and sharp. I lost my balance, fell into the black water and started to scream. Xiaolin swam back and dragged me out.

So I ended up sitting on the bank, with water dripping from my body, and my legs covered in pondweed. I watched Xiaolin swimming, from left to right, from near to far. What did the Emperor do here? I wondered. Would he swim with his concubines? And how did his concubines learn how to swim? While I was thinking about all this, Xiaolin was floating in the water as effortlessly as a duck. He didn't have anything particular to say to me, as if, on a first date, swimming in circles while the girl watches from the bank was the most normal thing to do.

From that day on, Xiaolin and I were together. I lived with his family in the tiny one-bedroom flat that was their home. A collective of three generations: his parents, his father's mother, his two younger sisters and us, not forgetting two brown cats and a white dog - all sleeping and coughing in the one bedroom. A solid family life, no romance, and I knew there would never be any.

There were moments when I glimpsed a different Xiaolin. He would hold my hand in the cinema and, afterwards, buy me barbecued squid in the night street. Sometimes, when we were out for a walk, he stopped and kissed me on the head. And in bed, whether sound asleep or restless with frenzied dreams, Xiaolin always held me close, as though afraid of our naked bodies parting. If I slept with my back to him, he would curl his body around mine, his arm resting on my ribcage, his warm, hairy legs entangled with my legs. I, too, depended on him to sleep. I'd prop my toes on his ankles, and stroke his fingernails with my thumb. Sometimes, if I slept with my ear on his chest, I could hear his heart beat like a drum.

But most of the time Xiaolin was either angry or zombie-like. He was stuck in a rut. Get up, go to work, go to bed. Never any change. For every meal, the three animals and six humans in Xiaolin's family (seven, if you included me) huddled round the small, circular table in the small, square room. The food was the same, the whole time I lived there. Eight Dragons Soy Sauce with rice, Eight Dragons with noodles, Eight Dragons with dumplings. We lived so close to each other, every millimetre of the floor was used. The two cats would pee in a sandbox, but the dog always shat beside our bed. He also kept making neighbours' bitches pregnant.

After three years, the grandmother was even more decrepit, and the two little sisters were getting on my nerves. There was no oxygen left in the room, I was worn out. It was like being back with the rotten sweet potatoes. I wanted to run and run and run.

Xiaolu Guo was born in 1973 in a fishing village in China, moving to London in 2002. In 2013 she was made one of Granta Magazine's Best of Young British Novelists.

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2007

Picture: Archives Charmet / Bridgeman Images
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What Marx got right

...and what he got wrong.

1. You’re probably a capitalist – among other things

Are you a capitalist? The first question to ask is: do you own shares? Even if you don’t own any directly (about half of Americans do but the proportion is far lower in most other countries) you may have a pension that is at least partly invested in the stock market; or you’ll have savings in a bank.

So you have some financial wealth: that is, you own capital. Equally, you are probably also a worker, or are dependent directly or indirectly on a worker’s salary; and you’re a consumer. Unless you live in an autonomous, self-sufficient commune – very unusual – you are likely to be a full participant in the capitalist system.

We interact with capitalism in multiple ways, by no means all economic. And this accounts for the conflicted relationship that most of us (including me) have with capitalism. Typically, we neither love it nor hate it, but we definitely live it.

2. Property rights are fundamental to capitalism . . . but they are not absolute

If owning something means having the right to do what you want with it, property rights are rarely unconstrained. I am free to buy any car I want – so long as it meets European pollution standards and is legally insured; and I can drive it anywhere I want, at least on public roads, as long as I have a driver’s licence and keep to the speed limit. If I no longer want the car, I can’t just dump it: I have to dispose of it in an approved manner. It’s mine, not yours or the state’s, and the state will protect my rights over it. But – generally for good reason – how I can use it is quite tightly constrained.

This web of rules and constraints, which both defines and restricts property rights, is characteristic of a complex economy and society. Most capitalist societies attempt to resolve these tensions in part by imposing restrictions, constitutional or political, on arbitrary or confiscatory actions by governments that “interfere” with property rights. But the idea that property rights are absolute is not philosophically or practically coherent in a modern society.

3. What Marx got right about capitalism

Marx had two fundamental insights. The first was the importance of economic forces in shaping human society. For Marx, it was the “mode of production” – how labour and capital were combined, and under what rules – that explained more or less everything about society, from politics to culture. So, as modes of production change, so too does society. And he correctly concluded that industrialisation and capitalism would lead to profound changes in the nature of society, affecting everything from the political system to morality.

The second insight was the dynamic nature of capitalism in its own right. Marx understood that capitalism could not be static: given the pursuit of profit in a competitive economy, there would be constant pressure to increase the capital stock and improve productivity. This in turn would lead to labour-saving, or capital-intensive, technological change.

Putting these two insights together gives a picture of capitalism as a radical force. Such are its own internal dynamics that the economy is constantly evolving, and this in turn results in changes in the wider society.

4. And what he got wrong . . .

Though Marx was correct that competition would lead the owners of capital to invest in productivity-enhancing and labour-saving machinery, he was wrong that this would lead to wages being driven down to subsistence level, as had largely been the case under feudalism. Classical economics, which argued that new, higher-productivity jobs would emerge, and that workers would see their wages rise more or less in line with productivity, got this one right. And so, in turn, Marx’s most important prediction – that an inevitable conflict between workers and capitalists would lead ultimately to the victory of the former and the end of capitalism – was wrong.

Marx was right that as the number of industrial workers rose, they would demand their share of the wealth; and that, in contrast to the situation under feudalism, their number and geographical concentration in factories and cities would make it impossible to deny these demands indefinitely. But thanks to increased productivity, workers’ demands in most advanced capitalist economies could be satisfied without the system collapsing. So far, it seems that increased productivity, increased wages and increased consumption go hand in hand, not only in individual countries but worldwide.

5. All societies are unequal. But some are more unequal than others

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, an increasing proportion of an economy’s output was captured by a small class of capitalists who owned and controlled the means of production. Not only did this trend stop in the 20th century, it was sharply reversed. Inherited fortunes, often dating back to the pre-industrial era, were eroded by taxes and inflation, and some were destroyed by the Great Depression. Most of all, after the Second World War the welfare state redistributed income and wealth within the framework of a capitalist economy.

Inequality rose again after the mid-1970s. Under Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the welfare state was cut back. Tax and social security systems became less progressive. Deregulation, the decline of heavy industry and reduction of trade union power increased the wage differential between workers. Globally the chief story of the past quarter-century has been the rise of the “middle class”: people in emerging economies who have incomes of up to $5,000 a year. But at the same time lower-income groups in richer countries have done badly.

Should we now worry about inequality within countries, or within the world as a whole? And how much does an increasing concentration of income and wealth among a small number of people – and the consequent distortions of the political system – matter when set against the rapid ­income growth for large numbers of people in the emerging economies?

Growing inequality is not an inevitable consequence of capitalism. But, unchecked, it could do severe economic damage. The question is whether our political systems, national and global, are up to the challenge.

6. China’s road to capitalism is unique

The day after Margaret Thatcher died, I said on Radio 4’s Today programme: “In 1979, a quarter of a century ago, a politician came to power with a radical agenda of market-oriented reform; a plan to reduce state control and release the country’s pent-up economic dynamism. That changed the world, and we’re still feeling the impact. His name, of course, was Deng Xiaoping.”

The transition from state to market in China kick-started the move towards truly globalised capitalism. But the Chinese road to capitalism has been unique. First agriculture was liberalised, then entrepreneurs were allowed to set up small businesses, while at the same time state-owned enterprises reduced their workforces; yet there has been no free-for-all, either for labour or for capital. The movement of workers from rural to urban areas, and from large, unproductive, state-owned enterprises to more productive private businesses, though vast, has been controlled. Access to capital still remains largely under state control. Moreover, though its programme is not exactly “Keynesian”, China has used all the tools of macroeconomic management to keep growth high and relatively stable.

That means China is still far from a “normal” capitalist economy. The two main engines of growth have been investment and the movement of labour from the countryside to the cities. This in itself was enough, because China had so much catching-up to do. However, if the Chinese are to close the huge gap between themselves and the advanced economies, more growth will need to come from innovation and technological progress. No one doubts that China has the human resources to deliver this, but its system will have to change.

7. How much is enough?

The human instinct to improve our material position is deeply rooted: control over resources, especially food and shelter, made early human beings more able to reproduce. That is intrinsic to capitalism; the desire to acquire income and wealth motivates individuals to work, save, invent and invest. As Adam Smith showed, this benefits us all. But if we can produce more than enough for everybody, what will motivate people? Growth would stop. Not that this would necessarily be a bad thing: yet our economy and society would be very different.

Although we are at least twice as rich as we were half a century ago, the urge to consume more seems no less strong. Relative incomes matter. We compare ourselves not to our impoverished ancestors but to other people in similar situations: we strive to “keep up with the Joneses”. The Daily Telegraph once described a London couple earning £190,000 per year (in the top 0.1 per cent of world income) as follows: “The pair are worried about becoming financially broken as the sheer cost of middle-class life in London means they are stretched to the brink.” Talk about First World problems.

Is there any limit? Those who don’t like the excesses of consumerism might hope that as our material needs are satisfied, we will worry less about keeping up with the Joneses and more about our satisfaction and enjoyment of non-material things. It is equally possible, of course, that we’ll just spend more time keeping up with the Kardashians instead . . .

8. No more boom and bust

Are financial crises and their economic consequences part of the natural (capitalist) order of things? Politicians and economists prefer to think otherwise. No longer does anyone believe that “light-touch” regulation of the banking sector is enough. New rules have been introduced, designed to restrict leverage and ensure that failure in one or two financial institutions does not lead to systemic failure. Many would prefer a more wholesale approach to reining in the financial system; this would have gained the approval of Keynes, who thought that while finance was necessary, its role in capitalism should be strictly limited.

But maybe there is a more fundamental problem: that recurrent crises are baked into the system. The “financial instability” hypothesis says that the more governments and regulators stabilise the system, the more this will breed overconfidence, leading to more debt and higher leverage. And sooner or later the music stops. If that is the case, then financial capitalism plus human nature equals inevitable financial crises; and we should make sure that we have better contingency plans next time round.

9. Will robots take our jobs?

With increasing mechanisation (from factories to supermarket checkouts) and computerisation (from call centres to tax returns), is it becoming difficult for human beings to make or produce anything at less cost than a machine can?

Not yet – more Britons have jobs than at any other point in history. That we can produce more food and manufactured products with fewer people means that we are richer overall, leaving us to do other things, from economic research to performance art to professional football.

However, the big worry is that automation could shift the balance of power between capital and labour in favour of the former. Workers would still work; but many or most would be in relatively low-value, peripheral jobs, not central to the functioning of the economy and not particularly well paid. Either the distribution of income and wealth would widen further, or society would rely more on welfare payments and charity to reduce unacceptable disparities between the top and the bottom.

That is a dismal prospect. Yet these broader economic forces pushing against the interests of workers will not, on their own, determine the course of history. The Luddites were doomed to fail; but their successors – trade unionists who sought to improve working conditions and Chartists who demanded the vote so that they could restructure the economy and the state – mostly succeeded. The test will be whether our political and social institutions are up to the challenge.

10. What’s the alternative?

There is no viable economic alternative to capitalism at the moment but that does not mean one won’t emerge. It is economics that determines the nature of our society, and we are at the beginning of a profound set of economic changes, based on three critical developments.

Physical human input into production will become increasingly rare as robots take over. Thanks to advances in computing power and artificial intelligence, much of the analytic work that we now do in the workplace will be carried out by machines. And an increasing ability to manipulate our own genes will extend our lifespan and allow us to determine our offspring’s characteristics.

Control over “software” – information, data, and how it is stored, processed and manipulated – will be more important than control over physical capital, buildings and machines. The defining characteristic of the economy and society will be how that software is produced, owned and commanded: by the state, by individuals, by corporations, or in some way as yet undefined.

These developments will allow us, if we choose, to end poverty and expand our horizons, both materially and intellectually. But they could also lead to growing inequality, with the levers of the new economy controlled by a corporate and moneyed elite. As an optimist, I hope for the former. Yet just as it wasn’t the “free market” or individual capitalists who freed the slaves, gave votes to women and created the welfare state, it will be the collective efforts of us all that will enable humanity to turn economic advances into social progress. 

Jonathan Portes's most recent book is “50 Ideas You Really Need to Know: Capitalism” (Quercus)

Jonathan Portes is senior fellow The UK in a Changing Europe and Professor of Economics and Public Policy, King’s College London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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