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CHINA

The discontent beneath the surface

As a visiting professor to Chongqing between 2006 and 2010, Lemos had the opportunity to mingle with ordinary residents of the mega city. To look past the official image of an industrial and happy city, the British scholar came up with a simple but creative plan.

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 August, 2012, 10:26am

The End of the Chinese Dream: Why Chinese People Fear the Future

by Gerard Lemos

Yale University Press

 

Chow Chung-yan

China's rise from poverty to prosperity over the past three decades has been a subject of much discussion. Different schools have their own theories of the mainland's future. British sociologist Gerard Lemos has taken an unusual approach here: by examining the psyche of ordinary Chinese.

As a visiting professor to Chongqing between 2006 and 2010, Lemos had the opportunity to mingle with ordinary residents of the mega city. To look past the official image of an industrial and happy city, the British scholar came up with a simple but creative plan.

Lemos and his assistants designed a "wish tree" with hundreds of postcard "leaves". On each leaf, there were four questions: Who are you? What event changed your life? What is your biggest worry? What do you wish for?

The tree was then "planted" in one of the busiest squares in Chongqing and the paper leaves were freely distributed to passers-by. They were invited to write down their true feelings and affix their answer to the wish tree.

Drawing from the answers of hundreds of participants, Lemos found that beneath the myth of a harmonious society most of these people were living in constant social and financial anxiety - and the discontent was far greater than what an outsider coming to China would first suspect.

The book is a combination of anecdotes, personal observations, summaries of media reports, and a bit of historical and philosophical analysis of Chinese civilisation. Lemos examines the sources of the people's anxieties and finds they are rooted in almost every aspect of daily life - from public health care to education to family planning and other issues.

His conclusion is damning: the mainland's apparent strength rests on a fragile base. Despite a united and confident image created by the Communist Party, the social fabric that holds everything together is weak. He concludes that despite the initial optimism and hope brought about by economic liberalisation in the early 1980s and '90s, the people's confidence in their future is waning. "The underlying problems that create public discontent remain but the optimism of the 1980s, the year of the Chinese dream, has faded" - that is the central message of Lemos' book.

All the problems listed in the book are true and well documented, but it contains few surprises. It is also questionable to draw a conclusion about a country so vast based on a survey of a few hundred people. Most of these people expressed concerns for their medical care and financial security after retirement. But if the tree was instead planted in Madrid, Mumbai or Miramar, we would probably get the same answers.

Given how quickly Chinese society is evolving, the expectations of life among different generations are very different. For the elder generation who survived the Cultural Revolution, material prosperity, a certain level of individual freedom and stability may be sufficient. But for younger generations, they have much higher aspirations and expectations for their future. The book, however, fails to address these issues.

The book offers some glimpses of the challenges China is facing but gives little insight or systematic understanding.

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