To get rich is glorious…
China has changed more over the last 30 years than any other country in human history. This change has affected directly the life of 1300 million people (one human being out of 5) and transformed the whole world economic map, with many regions now depending more and more on Chinese trade and investment. When compared with the British led industrial revolution that redefined the world at the time, the Chinese revolution concerns 40 times more people and its happening far more rapidly
The reforms launched by Deng Xiao Ping were not only an economic but also a social revolution. They have lifted more than 500 million Chinese (the entire population of Europe) out of poverty and into the consumer age and have produced the largest ever migration, with over 250 million Chinese from the poorer western provinces moving to the richer and freer coastal cities like Shanghai, Shenzhen and Guangdong.
Therefore, old Chinese can remember, over the last century, the end of the traditional empire, decades of warlords and civil war, the tragic Japanese invasion, the communist takeover, the upheavals under of Mao with its leaps forward and cultural revolutions, and finally this momentous modernization. Enough change for several lives in any other country! And more than enough reasons to feel at a loss in this brave new world.
Socialism with Chinese characteristics…
This explosive transformation in just over a generation has created the largest economy in the world (recently overcoming the USA), starting from a backward, very poor and agricultural society after the death of Chairman Mao, to become a consumer society.
From a vast majority of Chinese living in the countryside and earning a living as subsistence farmers, mostly for many generations in the same place, to a dynamic high tech society living mostly in cities, some of them real global mega polis, like Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, deeply connected to the world and immersed in a consumer paradise. IPhones, fashion and dancing, all unknown a few years back, now at their disposal.
While their parents were consumed by political mobilizations and propaganda, young people have more freedom and access than ever before in Chinese history, in spite of the one-party state.
Crossing the river by feeling the stones…
However, not all Chinese have profited from this boom. Many have been left behind and continue to live very much like their parents but surrounded by another world.
Traditional architecture, like hutongs in Beijing, survives in spite of massive demolition and rebuilding. Street cuisine flourishes in spite of the proliferation of gourmet restaurants. Many people still spend most of their time in the streets.
Old people struggle to adjust, adapting tentatively and progressively to the reforms, feeling more and more disconnected from their grandchildren, unable sometimes to fully understand where they are, but also adapting to new fashions with gusto!
Even the longest journey starts with the first step…
All revolutions have their unsung heroes, those that make it possible but often remain unknown, even despised.
In China, the 250 million migrant workers, moving from west to east, are the pillars of this new revolution. Seeking employment and higher salaries, attracted by the lights and promise of the coastal cities.
Leaving behind part of their family, saving to finance their children education, without a resident permit (hukou) and therefore with difficult access to social services, including education and health. Illegal in many ways, but tolerated as essential workforce.
The future is now
Welcome to the new China, where old and new coexist with difficulty, but where the future of the world is being decided today. You may like it or dislike it, but certainly not ignore it if you want to understand where the world is going.