Show Hide image

The hazards of Chinese authoritarianism revealed

"The End of the Chinese Dream: Why Chinese People Fear the Future" and "Scattered Sand: the Story of China’s Rural Migrants" reviewed.

The End of the Chinese Dream: Why Chinese People Fear the Future
Gerard Lemos
Yale University Press, 352p, £20

Scattered Sand: the Story of China’s Rural Migrants
Hsaio-Hung Pai
Verso, 316pp, £16.99

Any day now, the Chinese political system will go into spasm and produce a new leadership. The backstory of the choices will remain largely unknown, despite astonishing recent glimpses of the infighting in what increasingly resembles the world’s biggest mafia organisation.

If the past is any guide, at the climax of the Chinese Communist Party congress, scheduled for this autumn, nine middle-aged men with implausibly black hair and tightly set expressions will march on to the big stage in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People to rapturous applause. These illuminati will be the new incumbents of China’s most powerful entity, the standing committee of the politburo.

At the end of their expected two terms of office, these men and their families will be fabulously rich. They will be alert throughout to the demands of supporters and wary of attacks by rivals. They will place their allies in key posts to guard against future reversals of fortune. Much lower down their list of concerns will be what the 1.3 billion people they rule might be thinking as they watch this change of shift at the top.

A tidal wave of China-related books inundates the bookshops each year but few of them interrogate what Chinese people outside the privileged urban elites really feel about the past five decades of economic upheaval, social rupture and ideological confusion or about the ruling party and the system it upholds. This is in part because, with more than a billion subjects, even the most conscientious effort can be criticised as too small to be useful.

Equally important is the reluctance of the Chinese authorities to allow foreigners to dig around in this sensitive territory. Gerard Lemos, whose book The End of the Chinese Dream is based on an extended exercise in opinion-gathering, and Hsiao-Hung Pai, whose book Scattered Sand is the product of thorough reporting among China’s most marginalised citizens, both show what can be discovered despite official obstruction.

It is a cliché of many western accounts of China that the double-digit economic growth of the past 30 years must equate to the greatest happiness of the greatest number: 300 million people have been lifted out of poverty; China is now the world’s second-largest economy; the majority of Chinese are living in cities for the first time in history. How could this not be happiness?

The party leadership knows better. It is one of the hazards of authoritarianism that leaders may be unaware of the depth of the people’s anger until it is too late. Lower-level bureaucrats hide unpleasant truths from their boss and suppress truth-telling by others. The regime relies on old-fashioned intelligence methods – the secret police, petitions from unhappy citizens and internal reports from the party’s news agency, Xinhua, to identify dissent. With the explosion of social media, it also harvests the public mood electronically.

Until recently, the kind of qualitative research practised by Lemos was rare. In 2006, he took up a visiting professorship in Chongqing, the sprawling megalopolis in western China ruled at the time by the now disgraced Bo Xilai. His brief was to teach Chinese colleagues research techniques that might help to improve policymaking and implementation. It wasn’t straight­forward. Foreigners are not allowed to conduct surveys in China. Lemos was, however, allowed to erect a “wish tree” in various locations, an idea adapted from Chinese religious practice. He created 3,000 “leaves”, cards on which participants found four questions: who are you, what event changed your life, what is your biggest worry and what do you wish for? The responses were brief and the samples unscientific but, woven into Lemos’s narrative, they illuminate the fear of the future that lies beneath the surface of a rising China.

Lemos’s snapshots reveal people traumatised by rapid change and the loss of community and family ties, deeply anxious about the insecurities of old age and resentful of flourishing corruption and ineffective justice. Despite higher living standards, Lemos’s respondents are beset with financial woes: many are worse off than before, others worried about falling ill and facing medical bills; the young worry about failing the exams on which their job prospects and the hopes of their families depend; children worry about the devastating environmental pollution that has been the price of industrialisation. Small wonder local officials tried to bury the results.

The discontent of the middle classes, generally considered the beneficiaries of China’s economic growth, is perhaps more surprising than the unhappiness of migrant workers revealed in Pai’s account. Pai is best known in Britain for her work on the Morecambe Bay disaster in 2004 in which 23 Chinese migrant workers drowned. She followed their story back to China, then spent two years studying migration there.

The migrant workers are the most recent manifestation of a policy that has existed in various forms since the People’s Republic was founded in 1949: the exploitation of its rural population to fund development. Pai describes how rural men and women, desperate to escape poverty, have been the motor of China’s economic boom. The men build the cities and labour in lethal coal mines; the women work brutal hours in factories turning out everything from shoes to computers for export.

Migrant workers do the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs. In return, they are cheated of their wages, left with industrial diseases and denied basic rights. They exist as an underclass in China and many have been driven to suicide. They don’t show up in China’s unemployment statistics or in average income statistics. (The city of Guangzhou recently announced that it had reached a per capita average income of $10,000 per year, a figure that simply ignored 3.5 million migrant workers.)

They remain non-people. City dwellers whose homes and offices they have built treat them with contempt. They have no right of access to city health services and their children cannot attend city schools. Through their eyes, Pai exposes the brutal realities of the political system that the nine new politburo members will lead. How long it survives will depend on whether they are willing to change it.

Isabel Hilton is editor of

Isabel Hilton is the editor of 

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Lib Dem special