What kind of society will China’s new leaders inherit? China has developed at unimaginable pace, lifting millions out of poverty. But as part of a series of viewpoints on challenges for China’s new leadership, Gerard Lemos, who conducted research in the mega-city of Chongqing, says it is easy to overlook its lonely underbelly.
An old man was hanging upside down in the public square. His feet in traditional cloth shoes were over the parallel bars from which he had suspended himself, for what were presumably his morning exercises. He was fully clothed and in a padded overcoat to combat the spring chill.
I saw this when visiting a factory community in Beijing in 2008. On the face of it, this was a peculiar act to perform in a public space, but people walked past taking no notice. In such traditional Chinese communities, this public square served as a communal living room; most of the people around are friends and neighbours. Not being surprised by the unusual behaviour of your neighbours is an aspect of intimate community life.
But this kind of sight will become rarer as a changing China sees the fragmentation of these communities.
When I was a visiting professor at a Chinese university I was asked by the government’s civil affairs bureau to find out people’s fears and dreams to help the authorities better understand the risks of social unrest.
In the Mao era factory units, between the smoky brick factories and chimneys and cramped, dark flats was a bare concrete public space like the one where this old man was exercising.
Because people lived in such uncomfortable and overcrowded conditions, these public spaces were claimed by residents taking exercise, spontaneous groups performing tai chi or playing Chinese chess. Old men would take their caged songbirds out for some air and a change of scene.
But this way of life is disappearing, in the cities and in the countryside. For many in China isolation is a new experience brought on by economic transformation. In the neighbourhoods where I worked in Chongqing and Beijing, loneliness was spreading like pollution.
The new leadership scheduled to be announced in November will not just have to address failing economic growth and foreign policy dilemmas such as regional territorial disputes, but also the absence of a social safety net, the consequences of the one-child policy and the unhappiness of migrants to cities and factories.
From the 1950s to 1970s people were allocated to factory units for life by the Party authorities. Megaphones blared propaganda continuously. Workers had to sing Maoist songs, wear uniforms and participate in daily group exercises. Party officials were everywhere and permission was needed for everything, including getting married or moving house.
But there was an upside. The residents were promised a job for life, a free school and clinic. The intention was they stayed in one place all their lives, though the Cultural Revolution threw that into turbulence. Over time living side-by-side turned neighbours into families and families became communities, however hard their lives.
Since the 1990s the factories have been closed and demolished. Farmers’ land near cities is being sold for development into high-rise flats.
One ex-farmer in Chongqing whose land had been confiscated told me: “My land being expropriated [changed my life. I wish] to have my own land and to live my life as a peasant farmer.”
Another was worried about where he would live now that his land had gone: “[My greatest worry] is having no place to live. [I wish] to have more living places built for the peasant workers.” Another said: “[I wish] the urban residents who have just changed from rural residents could all get employed.”
In fact, longstanding residents are evicted from their homes and given a small flat and minimal financial compensation in the least desirable accommodation. Either there is no public space or it is far away and soulless. Employment prospects for ex-farmers are poor or non-existent. There is nothing to do except stay indoors, watch TV or gamble on the stock market – now, some believe, approaching a national obsession.