Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Visiting China 2 - musings on social and economic change in modern China

Continuing my China trip, this post focuses on social, economic and cultural perspectives.

Just to set the scene, China like Australia faces a problem in getting professionals to go to the country. Kids come to the big metro centres for their education, then stay. To help overcome this, the Henan Agricultural University announced a degree (China Daily quoting the People's Daily) in rural development and management during our visit.

All this was very familiar, although I was surprised that the Henan degree was reported to be the first in China. I have been writing on these issues in an Australian context for some time. Indeed, while I was away the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare released a report on regional, rural and remote health pointing to continuing problems in this country.

However, in reading the story I was rather struck by one paragraph. I quote in part:

In recent years, more than 5 million students have been graduating annually, equivalent to the population of a provincial capital city.

Think about it, five million graduates annually. Note, too, that in population terms Sydney as Australia's largest city ranks at best as a Chinese provincial capital. Compare this to Shanghai's 23+ million people. Now you get a feel for real power rankings.

I make this point because I think that we in Australia sometimes have an inflated idea of our own importance. We prognosticate and expect the rest of the world to listen. Our own self-image blinds us to the reality of our position.

In similar vein, our news access in China was limited to CNN and BBC World plus the Chinese English language dailies. Here Australia attracts very little coverage outside sport. The change in the opposition leadership was picked up, but that was about all. More negatively, Australian domestic reporting and navel gazing on race issues in particular carries over into Chinese perceptions of Australia.

As an aside, measured by frequency of comment, Kevin Rudd's fluent Manadarin clearly did have an impact during his visit, attracting many Chinese.

Australia's economic influence is somewhat greater.

The Australian dollar is one of a relatively small number of currencies that the major hotels list on their currency boards for exchange into yuan (RMB). In Shanghai, the large commodity trade and associated shipping requirements generate substantial professional services demand in areas like shipping law.

However, we should not assume that the present commodity demand and associated price rises will continue. As a simple example that I have not seen reported in Australia, the Chinese car industry is presently reporting lower sales - something that is new - because of price hikes flowing in particular from higher steel costs, as well as softer economic activity due in part to reduced international demand for Chinese products.

In the longer term, economic development in China will underpin demand for our mineral products. This does not mean, however, that there will not be short term fluctuations, nor does it mean that the currently favourable terms of trade will continue. As global demand softens, the Chinese will be in a much better position to demand more favourable prices for our commodity exports.

I found the patterns of generational change in China absolutely fascinating, although my understanding is obviously far from perfect.

I have the clearest picture of middle class China. While large in absolute terms, the middle class is still a relatively small slice of 1.3 billion people of whom 800 million are rural. There is a huge gap between urban and rural poor and the bling bling of Beijing's middle class young with their love of Karioke and bars.

Further, even in middle class China there are two key variables not present in Australia.

The first is the opening of China from 1978 after the end of the Cultural Revolution. This was a key defining event.

Those who went through the Cultural Revolution were marked in ways that we can barely understand. I have always wondered how China survived this experiment. Now I have a feeling that the country survived because many people simply tried to keep things going by working round official positions.

Take medicine as an example. Apparently, medical training was cut back to three years. This was too short a period for proper training, so new doctors were required to do another year under direct supervision in hospitals before being allowed to practice, essentially maintaining a four year pattern.

The generation immediately following the Cultural Revolution - those who did their schooling in the late seventies and early eighties - gained from the new freedoms, but still lived in the Revolution's shadow. They appear to see a clear difference between their and subsequent generations with their more individualistic focus.

If we think of an individualistic-collectivist spectrum, the US has traditonally been at the individualistic end, China at the collectivist end. Australia sits more towards the middle, individualistic, but with continuing collectivist elements. Now the Chinese young have moved towards individualism. A story to illustrate.

Coming down in the lift from dinner, the lift stopped at KTV, what appeared to be an entertainment venue. Three girls around 20-23 got in. One smoking, one texting, all three talking loudly, they ignored the rest of us while planning the next stage of their night on the town. With the exception of smoking in the lift, they could have been in Sydney's Eastern Suburbs. Downstairs, they joined a throng of young people heading in a different direction.

When I asked about them, I was told that KTV was a popular Karioke spot. My comment on the comparison with the Sydney equivalents led to a discussion on generational change, tribalism and individualism. There are common themes. However, and as I will outline in a later post, the similarities should not be overstated.

The second key variable not found in Australia is the one child policy. I have discussed this before in the context of demographic change. However, it has had social effects that were unclear to me.

One theme in the commentary that I have read has been the common suggestion that the overwhelming focus on individual children has in some senses created a pampered, indulged, generation. I have no idea whether this is true or not. However, what I had not fully realised was the nature of the pressures placed upon the kids themselves.

Chinese society appears competitive and stratified. Parents' hopes for their children are bound up in single individuals, the child who will carry the family forward, who will better the family position. China's long exam tradition also carries forward through the schooling system. Parents make great sacrifices to give their children the best opportunity. The pressures on kids to perform appear enormous.

In Shanghai we went to a confucian temple and school. The temple itself has wall after wall recording exam success over multiple dynasties. Attached to trees in the courtyard by red ribbons are many hundreds, thousands, of cards seeking gifts from the gods. Our tour guide, himself a child of the immediate period after the opening, read some of them out. Pleas for exam success dominated.

Speaking personally, I can only begin to imagine just how this type of pressure affects kids and parents.


Anonymous said...

You must visit the other dark horse, India. You will find many similarities.

Having said that this is a very balanced and well written post. I have learned a great deal from it.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, RM. I would love to visit India. I am sure that I would find many similarities as well as differences.