E, 29, Shanghai上海

27/01/2017

On the eve of Chinese New Year, I met E at my hostel. We spoke for hours on a vast range of topics, the most intense on the effects of Chinese social and economic development and the BBC documentary ‘Secrets of China’ which provoked outrage in China due to its choice of controversial social issues: many of which E believes to have been misinterpreted and misunderstood by the West.

In the rooftop bar of my hostel not far from the Bund, E and I began talking about Shanghai and Beijing. Having lived in both cities, E told me he feels saddened Shanghai has little to offer in terms of authentic Chinese culture due to a longstanding international influence throughout its history. According to him, many elderly residents feel alienated by the modern, international shopping malls and that they feel more at ease in local markets where they can see familiar faces and bargain, a significant aspect of Chinese culture. Beijing’s hutongs guard an authentic Chinese atmosphere where tourism and local culture are fiercely intertwined … for now at least. “In a few short years China’s Communists have used the excuse of the Olympic games to level the medieval city built by the great Ming emperor, Yongle”[1]

DAD China 2010-12 (11)

Born in the late 1980s, E explained his generation has in fact witnessed the greatest change in China’s development. Millennium babies take this new founded (technological, social and economic) development for granted. E told me to envisage this: Chinese households never had landline telephones. The West saw a gradual shift from landline telephones to mobile phones, yet China jumped from 0 to 100 and all of a sudden millions of people all over China had mobile phones seemingly overnight. Although the government imposed a FireWall against certain Western websites including Google and Facebook, they were connected to the internet. In 2003, the immense Chinese online shopping website Taobao was formed as part of the Alibaba Group. The Alibaba online marketplace receives 12.8 billion orders annually. [2] The following year in 2004, Alipay, China’s leading third-party online payment solution was created[3] In 2011 Wechat was established, and by 2016 it had 864 million active users[4].

E grew up in a small village in relative poverty[5] where many locals struggled to feed and clothe themselves. The home in which E grew up in had two rooms: a kitchen area in which the family ate and socialised, and a bedroom shared by his parents, his grandmother, his brother and himself. As both parents worked, his grandmother raised E and his brother until she passed away. E’s grandmother had eight children, his parents had two, and E doesn’t want any.

Growing up, E remembers one child policy regulations as strictly enforced by local officials; the effects of which were detrimental. Families struggled to adjust from having multiple children to one. They financially as there was less labour to work in farms and on family businesses. Psychologically the drastic change in family dynamics caused widespread panic as couples went out of their way to ensure their single child was male. E told me it felt like the people were in combat against the government as some risked having a second, secretive child yet at an alarming risk. Families that were caught were interrogated by the authorities and often those in absolute poverty[6] didn’t have enough money to pay a fine, so their belongings were taken away, the only possessions they owned.

On the other hand, E proclaimed to have strong faith in the Chinese government. Before the age of 10, E’s family paid taxes in the form of their farm’s harvest. Following the 1978 reforms following the death of Mao Zedong on September 9th 1976[7], including the introduction of “household-responsibility system” in which farmers were entitled to self-ownership of their land for the first time[8] China’s GDP growth began to explode[9] Furthermore they provided farms with basic machinery and fertilisers so as to improve the quantity and efficiency of their harvest. Subsequently, many people in E’s village were lifted out of relative poverty.

As E and I chatted, the majority of shops around us remained bustling, seemingly oblivious to the eve of Chinese New Year. Wealthy young couples strolled in and out of high end retail shops, bags of luxury goods overlapping one another. E told me the Chinese government has not stopped to enjoy its success, but has and will continue to strive for prosperity hence closing business on the eve of Chinese New Year isn’t an option.

The intense pressure and competition within companies however can be toxic. E confessed a lot of his colleagues are not paid overtime, yet cannot afford to fall behind their workload for fear of being replaced. If somebody stays late at the office, it is not uncommon for others to stay later so as not to lose face. In a country with 1.37bn people[10] and counting, one must prove their individual worth above others, even if that means sacrificing weekends, leisure time and sleep. Yet in spite of the constant struggle this generation of spritely young Chinese are facing, many remain optimistic that if they work hard they will ultimately be rewarded for their efforts. E is confident the upcoming generation of Chinese will be more internationally aware, environmentally conscientious and willing to make a positive contribution to society.

Like almost all others I had met along my travels, E was proud to be Chinese. Whilst on the topic of foreigners in China, E told me the story of his auntie who had married a Finnish man over a decade ago. Despite a rather immense language barrier, the couple now live in Finland with their three children, returning annually to E’s home village (much to the excitement of locals who gossip relentlessly during the weeks and months after their visit). Whilst E acknowledged his uncle-in-law was in love with China, he stressed certain foreigners exist to spite and misrepresent his homeland. E was speaking exclusively about the 2015 BBC 3 documentary ‘Secrets of China’ presented by Billie JD Porter.

shang4

E told me following the release of ‘Secrets of China’, many Chinese felt angry and cheated at the way in which various Chinese social problems had been convened in such a naïve fashion. E proclaimed the documentary had “only showed part of the truth to people”. Some even went as far as to say Porter’s perception of China was entirely incorrect and that given her own personal, complicated background the documentary was to be viewed as a wholly inaccurate assessment of China. Furthermore, others felt “the episodes are linked together with a running theme: ‘conformity’, yet so far she has failed to talk about Confucianism, the philosophy that has been used to justify social Chinese hierarchy for centuries.”[11] In fact whilst reading an interview with the Porter herself, her lack of background understanding and complete disdain for Chinese culture soon became blindingly obvious. “We went to this market in Beijing and the director was like ‘we’ll do a little funny scene of you eating some of the food’, so I ate a tarantula, snake and loads of insects. It was foul. I thought it would just wouldn’t taste of anything but when I bit into the snake and there were eggs inside I was gagging, then the footage didn’t make the cut!’[12]

I empathized with E and the countless other Chinese that had reacted strongly against ‘Secrets of China’ Yet whilst the documentary evidently lacks taste and can in no way be validated as an authentic introduction into China, it does however touch upon some very real social problems within the country including teen rebellion, addiction to gaming, parental pressure on young people to marry, and how many young women are resorting to plastic surgery in order to look more ‘Western’ ; pale skin, and a more rounded eyelid being the most sought after features.

As we came to a close on the conversation, E said that whilst more and more foreigners are beginning to understand China, he hoped they could do so with open-eyes and an open-heart. Social and environmental problems are inevitable given the size of China’s population, and whilst the government has its flaws like many around the globe, E felt they were doing an impressive job in relentlessly pushing China up to 1st place in the world.

shang2

Bibliography

[1] http://www.economist.com/node/11837639

[2] http://expandedramblings.com/index.php/alibaba-statistics/

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alipay

[4]  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WeChat

[5]  Relative Poverty is defined as “the inability to reach a minimum accepted standard of living in a particular society or rather those who are are deprived from the benefits of a modern economy.” http://www.economicsonline.co.uk/Global_economics/Poverty.html

[6] Absolute Poverty is defined as “a condition characterised by severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education and information. It depends not only on income but also on access to services” United Nations, 1995 http://www.poverty.ac.uk/definitions-poverty/absolute-and-overall-poverty

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mao_Zedong

[8] http://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-reforms-chronology-sb-idUKTRE4B711V20081208

[9] https://828cloud.wordpress.com/2016/01/28/china-gdp-slowest-growth-in-13-years/ Entitled “Nominal GDP between 1952 and 2005”

[10] http://www.worldometers.info/world-population/china-population/

[11] http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2015/09/why-is-the-bbcs-latest-documentary-on-china-fronted-by-someone-who-doesnt-know-anything-about-china/ Cindy Yu

[12] http://www.marieclaire.co.uk/life/travel/bille-j-d-porter-secrets-of-china-54589

Image 1) https://www.theatlantic.com/photo/category/china/

Image 2) https://www.hongkongfp.com/2015/09/09/chinese-state-media-blasts-stereotypical-and-prejudiced-bbc-documentary/

Image 3) Own; taken along a road in the French Concession, January 2017

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