Tuesday 20 February 2018

Business: Chinese fears a mirror of those in the west

The End of the Chinese Dream
By Gerard Lemos

Frederik Balfour

IN 'The End of the Chinese Dream', Gerard Lemos presents contemporary China as an angst-ridden place where the economic miracle of the past two decades has left a vast swath of the population fretting about the future.

It's not the lack of democracy or human rights that keeps the Chinese awake at night. Rather it's the gnawing fear of unemployment, health care costs and the prospect of old age with insufficient savings.

The book's findings are based on research Lemos began in 2007 in Chongqing, a city little visited by foreigners at the time. It has since become associated with the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood by Gu Kailai, the wife of disgraced former Communist Party boss Bo Xilai.

Lemos sidesteps the ban on academics conducting independent social research by adapting a millennia-old Confucian tradition called the Wish Tree, where supplicants tie their desires to branches of a tree in temple courtyards.

Lemos obtains permission to create his own "trees" in public squares. He invites citizens to name a single event that most changed their lives, their worries and wishes. He replicates the exercise in two neighbourhoods in Beijing, receiving 2,586 responses in all.

The majority of concerns can be linked to the one-child policy, massive urbanisation and the abolition of China's iron rice bowl, which guaranteed employment, housing, healthcare and pensions until it was abandoned in the late 1980s.

Some respondents air specific grievances linked to widespread corruption by local officials. During the exercise, Lemos meets a Chongqing widow with a lump in her stomach whose daughter lives far away in Guangdong. "I think it's cancer," she explains through her tears. "I can't afford to go to the doctor and I haven't told my daughter. I don't want to ruin her life."

Unfortunately this is the only case where Lemos is able to flesh out the stories behind the responses, and as a result, the book lacks the rich narratives found in Leslie Chang's 'Factory Girls' and Zhang Xinxin and Sang Ye's 'Chinese Lives'.

Still, Lemos displays a fine eye for detail. During a talk at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Hong Kong, Lemos said he was "sure statisticians would be horrified" at his methodology, though he said he made "no scientific claims" either.

Instead he uses his findings to discuss environmental degradation, income inequality, Confucianism and the future of the Communist Party.

For those eager to look beyond China's glitzy coastal cities and official propaganda, Mr Lemos's book is an excellent primer.

Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091-709350.

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