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22 May 2024

Labour’s Yuan Yang: “There is deep class anxiety in China”

The parliamentary candidate on her journey from the Financial Times to politics, and how the country of her birth is changing.

By George Eaton

China’s Mount Emei – the location of its first Buddhist temple –  is one of the country’s most revered sites. For Yuan Yang, the author and Labour Party parliamentary candidate, it has a more personal resonance: her first hometown.

Until she moved to England at the age of four, Yang was raised in the mountains by her maternal grandparents in a communist work unit, or danwei (which, in her words, “provided a complete social infrastructure for workers to live within”). It was not until 2016, more than two decades later, that she returned to China as a correspondent for the Financial Times. By then, the country had been transformed by Deng Xiaoping’s market revolution.

“If you’re alive in China now you have seen generational changes in the economy and society that in the UK would have taken over 150 years to play out,” Yang told me when we met recently in Earley and Woodley, the suburban Reading constituency where she is standing. Accompanying her was Haohao, an amiable Alaskan Malamute, whom Yang successfully shielded from the Chinese authorities (dogs with a height of more than 35cm are banned in Beijing), once hiding him overnight in the FT bureau.

In her new book, Private Revolutions, Yang tells the story of China’s transformation through four millennial women: Sam, an underground Marxist who revolts against labour abuses; Leiya, who defies rural patriarchy to work in a factory (and later founds a childcare collective); June, who becomes the only one of her primary school classmates to attend university; and Siyue, who runs an educational consultancy for the urban elite. “Finding people with fascinating stories is not very hard in China,” said Yang, “but finding people who trust in you as a foreign correspondent is.” It was no accident that those who were prepared to “channel their inner life” were women of her generation.

Yang’s book captures the contradictions and nuances of modern China. It is a notionally egalitarian land where income inequality exceeds that of every major Western country except the US. “There is deep class anxiety at every level in China,” said Yang. She spoke of newly affluent families who fear “falling off the ladder” should their children fail to get into the best universities. A weak social safety net only heightens the sense of risk. Others worry that they have missed the “last bus to the station” – that the post-Deng era’s routes to prosperity are closing. “These are really important parts of the modern Chinese consciousness.”

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What does she believe are the biggest Western misconceptions about China? “Confusion over the economic system. I’d call it an authoritarian capitalist state,” replied Yang. “There is heavy central control over the economy, mostly through state-owned enterprises, but at this point it is more about political control than achieving particular economic outcomes.”

Yang also cited subtle but persistent dissent among citizens, which now often takes the form of coded language, sarcasm and irony. “The fact people aren’t screaming on social media doesn’t mean that they aren’t disgruntled or that they don’t have their own minds. I find it very insulting when people say Chinese people are brainwashed, essentially.”

She admires the bravery of those such as Sam – fighting for basic labour rights enshrined in the West – but is sceptical of their invocation of the Maoist tradition. “The challenge that Sam needs to respond to is: what would be different this time round? How would you avoid repeating the problems of the Communist Party? There’s a seed of anti-democracy in any revolutionary movement which can become violent and authoritarian in power.”

By the end of her time in China – Yang returned to London in 2022 – she was weary of the term “socialism”, which had become denuded of meaning through relentless party propaganda. “My time in China made me more attached to the word ‘democracy’ and less attached to the word ‘socialism’.”

In common with many of her generation, Yang was politicised by the 2008 financial crisis and the austerity imposed by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition. She co-founded the student group Rethinking Economics after being dismayed by the narrowness of the curriculum during her time at Oxford and the London School of Economics.

“It was very much, ‘We’re going to assume these perfectly optimising agents and make these models, your first task is to solve them.’ There was no engagement with the real economy and the questions that I wanted to answer… That really angered me.”

It was in 2015, while an intern at the Economist, that Yang joined the Labour Party. What is her response to those who argue journalists should not belong to political parties? “I don’t think any profession should deny you the freedoms of civic engagement, including joining a party. Obviously you should limit what you do in the workplace if you’re, say, a journalist or a teacher, but the ability to influence your democracy is such a basic fundamental right that, frankly, most people in the world don’t have.”

After being selected as a candidate in December 2023, Yang discovered that “quite a few of my colleagues were supportive of Labour or had been party members at some point”. (Insiders expect the FT to endorse Labour for the first time since 2005 at the next general election.)

Earley and Woodley, which polls project Yang will win, is emblematic of the reddening of the suburbs. The new constituency includes parts of Theresa May’s Maidenhead seat – May would become Yang’s constituent – and ultra-free marketeer John Redwood’s Wokingham seat (“he’s been an MP since before I was born”). A younger, more diverse population – often priced out of London – is moving such areas to the left.

Yang’s parents, who live in Earley and voted Tory in 2019, were surprised by their daughter’s embrace of politics. “My mum did not want me to stand for selection, she had this view: ‘You’ve got a wonderful job at the FT, it’s a job for life, which is quite rare in journalism these days. Why would you throw away that stability and jump into this unknown and risky thing?’” But her mother reconciled herself when she saw “the amount of effort that went into standing and how seriously I was taking it”.

Though a significant number of voters she meets are undecided, Yang is struck by the sense across the income spectrum that “the economy is broken, both in terms of the cost of living and also the provision of services”. She added: “When people are in that emotional state – close to giving up on politics – you can’t meet that with a managerial response of saying, ‘We’ll make things slightly better,’ you have to have a bold offer that speaks to the depth of the problem.”

When I asked whether she believed Labour had an adequate response she cited the New Deal for Working People, the party’s flagship workers’ rights programme, but emphasised that similar ambition is needed “across all aspects of the economy”.

Is she confident of winning? “The conversations on the doorstep all point to people wanting a change of government; particularly in the Tory-held parts of the constituency, there’s a feeling that John Redwood has been a very distant MP.”

As she confronts the scale of voter disillusionment, Yuan Yang is sustained by her conviction that “politics is the only solution”: “In a democracy we get to chuck the old guard out and get in a group of new people,” she reflected. “That’s a luxury that I didn’t have in the six years I was working in Beijing. It’s an unimaginable luxury there that we shouldn’t take for granted.”

[See also: Mehdi Hasan: “We don’t value Palestinian life”]

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This article appears in the 22 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Special 2024