China’s Booming, But Where Are The People?

The one thing I’ll always remember about China is beauty — in the clothing, the architecture, but most of all the people. There seemed to be a story in every face I saw, but the cultural gap (not to mention language) was too wide to traverse. So I’ve used films to see what life is like for a local. Still, that leaves a lot of mysteries unexplained. I want more.

These days, many seem fascinated with what makes China tick, and The Atlantic has been one of the best at feeding that curiosity. (Most recently with their China Issue.) It’s engaging stuff, but it deals largely with big operators (Liam “Mr. China” Casey, Zhang Yue), big factories, and big business. And we’re left wondering about the “regular people” who make those booming operations what they are — the kinds of people I saw on in the backstreets of Beijing and Shanghai, and in countryside villages. Here, we often find them discussed only in aggregate. Like so:

At 8 a.m. in Shenzhen, the young women on the night shift got up from the assembly line, took off the hats and hairnets they had been wearing, and shook out their dark hair. They passed through the metal detector at the door to their workroom (they pass through it going in and coming out) and walked downstairs to the racks where they had left their bikes. They wore red company jackets, as part of their working uniform—and, as an informal uniform, virtually every one wore tight, low-rise blue jeans with embroidery or sequins on the seams. Most of them rode their bikes back to the dormitory; others walked, or walked their bikes, chatting with each other. That evening they would be back at work. Meanwhile, flocks of red-topped, blue-bottomed young women on the day shift filled the road, riding their bikes in.   (full article)

And that’s invariably where the story ends. I wish more writers would pick one of the faces in the crowd and go home with them. See how they live. Meet their families, their roommates. See what they eat, how they think. And then find another worker in a different factory and do the same thing. Or a waitress, or a rickshaw driver, or a welder, or a young artist.

I don’t mean to be overly critical. There’s a huge amount of ground to cover in China and the high-level stories are as good a place to start as any. But I do hope that, before authors like James Fallows leave China, we get just as close with the blood and guts workers (who travel hundreds of miles to work 12 hour days, 7 days a week) as we have with the ultra wealthy captains of industry who employ them. It might be a little grim at times but, to my mind, that’s the only way we can truly begin to see China’s heart, and its soul.

image by cao fei

6 Responses to “China’s Booming, But Where Are The People?”

  1. 1 Gnorb

    A couple of thoughts:

    1) “I wish more writers would pick one of the faces in the crowd and go home with them.” You win the ‘funniest unintentional humor line’ award today.

    2) You make a very good point, considering the “Communist Revolution” is supposed to be about the workers, not the bourgeoisie. Alas, the 80-20 rule overrules even Communism (or whatever they actually have there now.)

  2. 2 Jason

    haha. It did cross my mind for a second that the face in the crowd bit might come across a bit racy, but I couldn’t figure out a better way to say it. (Probably lack of sleep.) Of course, it might keep some folks reading to get to the “naughty” part, too. :-)

    Good point on the Communist Revolution and its focus on workers. The more open business environment in place now (“Socialism with Chinese characteristics”) certainly has folks making big money, so it’ll be interesting to see how central “the worker” is in China’s future. And in future reporting on China.

  3. 3 Nils

    As a matter of fact, this photo blog just updated after three weeks of silence. Turns out the lady just came back from China. She’s a local photographer, but I don’t really know her. I am looking forward to her China images though. It’s not much, but it does get you a bit closer perhaps?

  4. 4 Aparna Pappu

    Tho not about the locals the recent article in the Times on thursday ( I think about this writer who decides to ditch NYC and move with her daughter to Shanghai provided much more information on the locals and how they live. Or at least on the whole house hunt process. Reading about it made we want to move there at once!

  5. 5 Jason

    Nils: Thanks for the photoblog pointer. I’ve been tracking it for a few days now. Beautiful stuff. I particularly love the shot of the girl running with Mao.

    Aparna: What a great slice of life in Shanghai. I can definitely attest to the beauty of the “lanes” she mentioned. Walking through neighborhoods in China was my favorite part of my trip there — to see people at home, not dressed up for tourists.

  6. 6 ResponsibleChina

    I think you could say this about any rapidly developing country. People always want to hear about the innovators and money-makers, but we forget that most of the country is still going along with everyday life at its regular pace, getting caught up in the hype.

    I wrote about China’s Internet youth culture from the type of perspective you’re considering–personal, up-close, inquisitive. The name of the article is “Internet Evolution.” You can read the online version of it here:

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