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The Clash of Culture and Class in China’s “Olympic Era”

In what may be the greatest economic miracle since the Industrial Revolution, China continues to become a global economic force into the twenty-first century. Historically, while Europe was suffering through the Dark Ages, China had already developed writing paper, the compass and gunpowder. However, from before Marco Polo to Chairman Mao Zedong, China has been an enigma—advanced in many ways and behind in others. Since the early 1980s, the dynamic changes in China’s socioeconomic demographics have been nothing short of astounding.

China overtook India’s standard of living in 1993 and, in the following decade, the Chinese economy continued to grow twice as fast. China now has a projected gross domestic product (GDP) for 2004 of US $7000 per capita. Global investors recognize an economy with great potential (ten percent plus growth) and, in the past year, foreign direct investment (FDI) inflows to China (projected at US$65 billion in 2004) continue to be five times greater than India and second only to the U.S. The future for China looks bright, or so one would be led to believe.

The initial results are more than a million Chinese millionaires with pent-up consumer demand and money to spend. Forbes magazine’s “Richest 100 People in China” starts with wealth at a minimum of US$110 million for #100 then goes up from there. The average age of the richest 100 people in China is 44 years old. The economy continues to hum along in spite of SARS and avian influenza. Urban centers like Chongqing and Beijing are some of the fastest growing cities on earth. Shanghai, with its 20 million citizens, the world’s tallest hotel/office building (Jin Mao Tower), and forty percent of the world’s building cranes is more a space-age movie set than a historical city once known as the “Paris of the East.” The urban confluence of young professionals (China’s growing middle class) at Starbucks, KFCs and McDonalds reveals China’s consumer driven frenzy. Megamalls springing up everywhere offer international luxury items like Swiss watches, Italian fashions, Russian caviar and French wine. Everything the world has to offer and more can now be bought in the New China—for a price.

The two most important (and conspicuous) consumer items for the Chinese “nouveaux riche” are automobiles and apartments. Car dealerships offering vehicles from all major brands are poised for staggering sales growth—perhaps an even greater success than all other international sales combined. Chinese middle and upper classes purchased 1.8 million new cars in 2003, bringing the national total to 10 million. And this is just the beginning. If car ownership ever reached similar levels as in the United States, China would have more than 600 million automobiles on the road.

New houses and garages for the new automobile are a must. Impeccably designed urban/suburban communities with such un-Communist names such as  “Manhattan,” “Palm Springs” and “Pebble Beach,” offer China’s wealthy classes premium homes and apartments with every conceivable luxury including spas, bowling alleys, movie cinemas and gated 24-hour security.

China’s consumerism is spreading outside traditional borders. Hong Kong’s first economic upswing since 1997 has been driven in no small part by the easing of restrictions on Chinese tourists to allow them to descend on Hong Kong shopping malls and buy up Hong Kong real estate. Similar consumer spending is occurring in countries like Singapore, Thailand and South Korea—all of which have the coveted Chinese government approval as tourist destinations.

In the 1980s, as China adopted a “market system with socialist characteristics,” the late Deng Xiao Ping declared, “To get rich is glorious,” in a stunning reversal of Communist ideology.  Currently, the Communist Party’s fourth generation of leadership under President Hu Jin Tao and Premier Wen Jia Bao has consistently reinforced the economic direction of China. These leaders, the first to have been educated and lived internationally, have done an admirable job of governing China’s 1.3 billion people given the global shadow of 9/11, the subsequent war on terror plus the SARS epidemic and avian flu in the mix.

Unfortunately, China’s new wealth also has a dark side. The widening disparity between rich and poor continues unabated. Luxury gated communities are surrounded by poorer shanty towns filled with illegal migrant workers and displaced citizens scraping by on US$50 per month. Millions of Chinese are left unemployed from their abandoned unprofitable state-owned enterprises (SOEs). Rural poor continue to struggle to provide for their families with little more than a sixth grade education. Prostitution in cities has become one of the few ways that women with little or no education can eke out a living.

Statistically, China’s income disparity is worse than that of other Asian countries like South Korea, Japan and India— this despite the fact that China had created one of the most even distributions of wealth between 1950 and 1980.  In fact, Chinese economic inequality levels are approaching the days when the Communists, under the leadership of a then unknown peasant, Mao Tse Tung, toppled a corrupt Nationalist (KMT) government which then fled to Taiwan in 1949.

Environmental issues are also a serious challenge for the New China. Two thirds of China’s largest cities have clean water shortage issues. Urban sewage issues and air pollution continue to be major urban problems made all the more serious because of new car sales. With Chinese factories interested only in profit, environmental damage continues unabated; poor air quality has caused more than two million deaths in the past decade. However, when challenged, the Chinese counter with the claim that as a developing country China is too poor to “go green.” Officially, as a “developing nation,” China’s global environmental standards do not need to be as stringent as nations in the West; however, few countries need environmental protection more.

So, time is of the essence for the New China. The government must undertake to build a social welfare network to protect the weakest in society. This safety net certainly includes the unemployed and impoverished, but also extends to the physically/ mentally challenged, the elderly and the sick. Who will protect the “orphans and widows” of China? How long will the disaffected and disadvantaged in the New China be willing to go along with the status quo?

Yet, there is little sympathy from the privileged classes for the bleakness of Chinese daily life. Urban professionals in China rationalize their economic inequality as fitting within atheistic constructs of society. Social Darwinism in China’s cities shows all too well that the greed of the rich succeeds at the expense of the poor. Exploitation continues under the mantra that the “end justifies the means.” China’s one child families desire to get rich—and get rich quick. For the spiritually attuned, the current Chinese milieu may prove to be an entry point for a reevaluation of Chinese society and the need for ethics and morals.

In the face of the socio-economic challenges, and to maintain their legitimacy, the Communist Party, through the National People’s Congress, has made recent amendments to the Chinese Constitution to make “lawful property rights as inviolable.” This follows in the wake of other changes including easing of worker/ household registrations, low-level political reforms (election of some city councilors), and the admission of “entrepreneurs and business people” into Communist party membership.

Critics claim recent changes further benefit the rich by protecting “illegally acquired” property. The Chinese constitution may be a finely worded document espousing virtuous ideals, but even with China’s movement towards a “rule of law” system, this may help little. Constitutional arguments are rarely, if ever, heard in commercial or criminal courts. Freedoms such as those of religion, association and the press are routinely squashed and ignored at best. It may be a few years yet before one sees the true effects the constitutional and other political changes will have. As indicated by the SARS epidemic, in the era of advanced communication via internet and mobile phones, Chinese citizens desire greater social justice and despise government cover-up.

The resultant clash of cultures and class in the New China reveals the importance of China’s non-profit organizations (NPO) and non-governmental (NGO) sectors. During the “Iron Rice Bowl” era (circa 1950-80), China’s “Big Brother” took care of social welfare needs. Those times are long gone, and China continues towards what has been termed a “small government, big community” system. Traditionally, Chinese normally help only their family members and those within their guanxiwang or “connections network.” One rarely helps an acquaintance and never a complete stranger. Charity and volunteerism were unknown concepts up until the past decade.

The NPO/NGO sector becomes increasingly crucial to bridging the socio-economic gaps between haves and have-nots. China rapidly adopted the Western capitalist models of greed without acknowledging the important Judeo-Christian underpinnings of society—those which provide a moral compass and safety net for the weak and disadvantaged. The New China’s materialism is based on a desire for profit in a moral vacuum where anything goes. China desperately needs to continue to develop its non-profit sector and find areas (environmental/poverty alleviation) where it can encourage citizens to show kindness and generosity. Corporate social responsibility (CSR) can also play a key role in helping domestic and multinational for-profit businesses invest in China’s social capital.

Is it any wonder, then, that many Chinese are extremely cynical and unhappy about their lives? Young people—many from single child families—in China do not believe that goodness, kindness and truth can coexist in a modern environment of greed, corruption and power. It has not taken long for even the wealthy and privileged to realize that money and fortune do not satisfy the soul.

To lighten the national mood and help citizens feel “good” about China, the government continues to focus on nationalistic and patriotic activities to divert attention from the seriousness of China’s socio-economic challenges. Diversions like China’s space program, the Beijing Olympics and a growing role in international relations help gloss over mundane hardships in life— even if only for a short time. While the Great Wall historically kept people and influences out of an insular Chinese society for much of the past five millennia, government officials have begun to use the new phrase, “big power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics.” China’s foreign relations have improved with the United States since the Hainan Island spy plane incident. China has signaled a readiness to become a global player on the world stage as seen in the recent visit by Premier Wen Jia Bao to the United States. China has also taken an important role in backchannel activities during the recent rounds of North Korean six party talks hosted in Beijing. China recently signed a vow of peaceful dialogue on the controversial China Sea (Spratly) Islands.

The Beijing 2008 Summer Olympic Games provide a prominent diversion and patriotic esteem for Chinese society. This “coming out party” for China—a defining moment in China’s history—will showcase China’s place in the world and also bring millions from abroad to celebrate the New China economic miracle.

At the same time, God has been bringing together a wide confluence of Chinese and international Christians who believe the Beijing Games will be used as a catalyst to accelerate the fulfillment of God’s purposes for China. International sports ministries have been active since the early 1950s. Basketball and “ping-pong diplomacy” were used by Christian organizations to establish relationships in countries behind the iron/bamboo curtains.

Currently, the global fellowship of sports ministries represents almost 200 countries and several hundred ministries and organizations. Olympic Games have been a key component/strategy of Christian sports ministry since the 1980s.

However, indigenous China sports ministries are typically young or nonexistent. Currently, the Chinese and international body of Christ is prayerfully seeking new and creative ways to have a relevant Christian witness through sports in the lead up to, during, and after the 2008 summer games. With the general movement towards a more open society in China, there is an unprecedented opportunity for international Christians to support the Chinese church.

Nothing is certain, and other key questions remain for China in the next few years. Only the Lord knows—let us continue to pray for the Lord’s Spirit and blessing to be released in China in a mighty way.

Note:  Statistics for this article were taken from the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), January-February 2004, and National Geographic, “China’s Growing Pain,” March 2004.

This journal article has been prepared solely for use by ChinaSource. Reprints in any other format including journals, periodicals or websites are with the author’s permission only.

Image credit: Jin Mao Tower Shanghai by Piutus via Flickr.

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James H. Law

James H. Law is a Chinese-American lawyer who has lived in China for several years and continues to work in support of Christian and secular non-profit organizations in the charity and philanthropy sector.View Full Bio