Justin Vela

My Friend the Newest Member of the Communist Party of China…The 60th Anniversary of the CPC…Bamboo Farmers in Fengxi Forest…

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Fengxi, China. February 2009.

Checking into the hotel before motorcycling to the village of Fengxi, China. February 2009.

This is an unedited version of an article that appears in the October issue of New Delhi’s The Caravan magazine. The article was researched during a trip to China in January-February 2009 as part of my final studies for an undergraduate degree completed last March. While this article focuses on China’s domestic relations, I have also written about China’s foreign policy for the Asia Times.

My Friend the Newest Member of the Communist Party of China

A few weeks before we met, my friend Jiang was nominated to become a member of the Communist Party of China, the CPC.

She was ecstatic, of course. Joining the CPC was everything that she had ever wanted. She had to celebrate quietly however: the Chinese, she said, are “too reserved”. Emotion was rarely expressed in China. It might be upsetting or cause unfortunate fluxes in a society that was far too large and historically complex for its own good, Jiang said.

At least, this was what Jiang insisted to me as we taxied, motorcycled and bussed around the mountains of Guandong province this past February, seeking to examine life in rural China. Our chance introduction was evocative of the new position that China has in the world, a position of increasing internationalism and power that has strengthened subtly over many years and was now an accepted reality crashing down upon other countries and redefining the future.

I was in Maizhou, a small city in northwest Guandong, working hard at doing some serious networking. This was to say that I was in a karaoke bar drinking an immeasurable amount of watery beer with a large group of Chinese, Cameroonians, Americans, Brits and a very drunk Thai man.

As is the custom in China, the beer was being consumed in shots. Someone would yell. “Gambei!” and if you didn’t drain your glass completely, stern looks would demand you pick it back up and finish whatever was left. The night was quickly getting out of hand. One of the Americans had selected some redundant beat and was rapping into the mike, “My finger is on the button…my finger is on the button…my finger is on the button in Maizhou…” He called out the names and countries of the assembled drinkers one by one.

“…Ahmadhou is in the house… Amadhou is in the house… Cameroon is coming back… Cameroon is coming back… Zhou is in the house… Zhou is in the house… China is coming back… China is coming back… America is not coming back… America is not coming back…”

They were not the finest of lyrics, but they served to pump the American up; he was feeling good about having moved to this tiny corner of China and shaping a life for himself away from the economic crisis and mounting desperation back home. The others had also relocated, or were students who had decided that China was a better place to study in than the US or Europe. For the Cameroonians, China was an attractive place because of the investment that it was putting into Africa. As one of them told me, “I can get a degree here and learn Chinese and I will certainly be hired by one of the Chinese companies back in Africa. They like to work with people that know them.”

They were good, hardworking people and had chosen to make China the launching pad for their future successes. The problem was they were getting my translator, Crystal, far too drunk; we had to be awake enough in a few hours to go north from Maizhou up further into the mountains to the village of Fengxi, where there were bamboo farmers I wanted to interview.

Traveling without Crystal would have been impossible. Accessing the rural areas of China was difficult. You drive for hours thinking that you are getting away from the crowds and chaotic construction of the cities, but after going over hills and past rickety towns, you came to yet another expansive urban scape. China was so massive that populations of more than one million people existed tucked away in what were presumably uninhabited mountains. To get to the truly rural areas, you had to be with someone who knows where to go.

Even more difficult than getting into the rural areas was communicating with the people. Most native Chinese had a minimal knowledge of English, if any at all. Anyone who spoke Mandarin and English fluently enough to do verbal translation was a rarity. There was an additional need, in the mountains of Guandong, for a translator who spoke Hakka, a subdivision of Mandarin spoken by the Hakka people who arrived in Guandong fleeing civil wars and conflict in the Henan and Shaanxi provinces in the 17th century.

Crystal had these language skills. But she was now having far too much fun. Her parents had exiled her to Maizhou’s small, conservative university because of the time she spent hanging out in the bars and clubs in her hometown: in Maizhou she was bored. Suddenly, again among people who shared her fondness for drinking and smoking, she was dancing around and grinning madly, the bamboo farmers apparently forgotten.

A few hours later, Crystal decided she was still too drunk to move from bed, and I began scrambling for a replacement translator. A 30-minute flurry of phone calls delivered Jiang. She arrived by taxi, laughing, “Your translator got drunk. That is very funny,” she said.

She was about 24 years old and had very small teeth and straight black hair that went down past her shoulders. She did not hold eye contact for long, but instead of looking down, like most people, she looked to the side, as if thinking ahead to something.

She was also decisively not dressed for the mountains. Instead of warm clothing and appropriate shoes, she wore large wooden platforms and what looked like a designer jacket and pants. She also had a massive black Dolce & Gabbana bag that sat on her lap like some kind of large pet. “It’s all fake,” she laughed when I commented on the outfit. “None of this is actually designer. They make a lot of these kinds of copied clothes in China.”

While there was a lot about China that Jiang thought was funny, I quickly realised that she was extremely patriotic. The importance she gave to the names of the rivers that we passed and to where they flowed and what they carried made that clear. I was extremely lucky to have her as a guide. One of her friends from the university, who was originally from Fengxi, happened to be home for the weekend. She was willing to tell us about the bamboo farming.

When I asked how she spoke Hakka so well, she smiled, “I am a Hakka person.”

I felt great relief. My work would not be foiled by a night of drunken karaoke, after all.

“Jiang,” I said, “You are the perfect translator.”

On the road to Fengxi. Guandong Province, China. February 2009.

On the road to Fengxi. Guandong Province, China. February 2009.

I was travelling in China at the appropriate time: 2009 was, after all, shaping up to be a big year for the country. There was the 50th anniversary of the March Tibetan Uprising. June marked the Tiananmen Square massacre. And, in October, the People’s Republic of China turns 60.

More important than all the anniversaries, however, was China’s undeniable rise in prosperity and power. Hillary Clinton had just visited China, the most important stop in her first trip abroad as secretary of state. She had spoken of the US and China on terms that some perceived as nearly equal.

“We have every reason to believe that the United States and China will recover and that together we will help lead the world to recover,” Clinton said, referring to the global financial crisis, at a news conference with Yang Jiechi, China’s foreign minister.

I had arrived in China for the first time a month before, flying into Shanghai from Helsinki. Even though I had grown accustomed to the advanced prosperity of the Nordic countries, China immediately awed me with its vast momentum and drive, which was being felt everywhere, and by dozens of people, Chinese and foreigners alike, who spoke proudly of the possibilities that existed for those wild and devious enough to succeed at them.

“There is this immediate sense that you can do here,” said Aimee Hayes. The 26-year-old founder of Bean Shanghai, a non-profit that organised volunteering events and networking nights, sat in one of Shanghai’s countless Starbucks, slowly pulling apart a blueberry muffin. “So many people in other places are always negative,” she said. “For whatever reason, they feel that they cannot be successful. Here in China, people are talking positively. Here they feel the ability to be successful.”

Ability. This is the word I heard repeated again and again in Shanghai at the beginning of 2009. And it wasn’t just a sentiment felt by the thousands of foreigners who lived and worked in the city.

In an expensive restaurant along East Nanjing Road, Terry Wu, a 32-year-old from Yunan province, joined a group of friends for lunch. Like the majority of people in China’s cities, Wu had come to Shanghai looking for employment after graduating from university. He now worked for a financial company doing research for US firms. Despite the global economic crisis, he was optimistic about China becoming one of the world’s new economic centres.

“We are among the few countries with growth projected for 2009. It is not as much growth as we had hoped, but it is still more growth than most other countries,” he said.

Speaking of the differences between what it was like to live in China when he was young and what it is like now, he said that when he was young his family could only afford to eat very simply, without a large variety of food. He was in high school before he knew what a beeper was. Growing up, there was no television in his house.

Now he had enough money to eat whatever food he wanted. He had a TV and an i-Phone, and had recently purchased an expensive apartment. Although the economic crisis was expected to worsen – one Chinese businessman I interviewed said, “China has not seen the real winter yet” – Wu saw the results of a changing China all around him in the form of Shanghai’s tall buildings, shopping malls, a fast subway system, and access to products that only a few years ago would have been unavailable.

Most Chinese people I spoke with in cities believed that the country would not only continue to develop in a way that would bring consistent improvement to their lives but also that it would open up more as time passed. Their increasing ‘ability’ – which some argued was a form of democracy – made them tolerate the government’s often heavy-handed tactics and autocratic behaviour.

“China is too big,” Wu said. “It is impossible to take into account everyone’s opinions. It is better that the leaders make the decisions.”

East Nanjing Road in Shanghai, China.

East Nanjing Road in Shanghai, China.

Not many wanted to speak about the “throw up and tear down” nature of Chinese development and the often poor standards. A laowai, a foreigner, criticising China was not welcome. The conviction that after 5,000 years of existence, theirs is the greatest of cultures, made many Chinese seem somewhat arrogant. As one of the Cameroonians said to me, “This country’s biggest problem is that the people think they are better than everyone else.”

Regardless, China was transforming the world around it, and the methods it has used to achieve its current status were often overlooked in favour of what currently exists on the ground. This, many said, was more important than anything that happened in the past.

This was an opinion that Jiang most likely shared. I decided not to ask too much about her political beliefs so early in our journey however. If the people in the cities were so optimistic, I was curious to know how the people in the countryside felt. Speaking to them with Jiang’s help would make sense of a crucial fact about the new China: that the priorities and the chief audience of the government were different than in the past. China was no longer a place of a messy revolution and class struggle. The people had changed. Jiang, in her faux designer clothes, embodied that change.

As we drove out of Maizhou and deeper into the mountains, I looked across the landscape. The hills had large craters where the ground had been detonated loose and packed in barges to be brought downriver and used in building projects. Along the highway, mounds of coal from Fujian province were protected by rickety wooden shelters. The highway itself was cracked and messily potholed.

After about two hours of driving, we turned off the highway and began to gradually climb a curvy, recently-laid concrete road. The taxi driver took the turns at speed, honking to warn incoming cars of our ascent. A roadside hotel 20 minutes up the mountain was as far as he would go. We surprised the hotel’s single employee, who, with no guests to look after, was in the process of locking the front door to go home for the weekend.

She sighed, unlocked the door and led the way to rooms on the third floor. “You are free to make your own lunch,” she said, handing over the keys and disappearing. Jiang thought this was typical and very amusing. “There are never any guests, but she still wants her day off. There is nothing valuable in this hotel and we have it all to ourselves,” she said.

She went through the kitchen trying to scavenge up something to eat. All she found was a little rice and some vegetables that she prepared with oil in a wok.

“I am not a good cook,” she said. “My father is a good cook, but I am not.”

Cell phone service was weak on the mountain. Jiang kept trying to reach her friend in Fengxi; the village was further up the road, too far for us to reach on foot. I guessed that since her father cooked, she came from a fairly progressive family. While she did not disagree, she insisted her family was “typical Chinese.” Finally, after lunch, the call went through and motorcycles were dispatched from Fengxi to pick us up.

While we waited I told Jiang that I had attended an English class at the university in Maizhou and had been surprised that the exercises in the textbooks had brought up the issue of inequality between men and women in Chinese society. These exercises, while designed for practicing English, served the dual purpose of encouraging students to think of women in business as being equal to men, and for men not to take for granted the work that women did.

Jiang said she was familiar with the textbook exercises. They were one of the ways that the Chinese government was trying to transform the country, she said. She then asked me how common domestic violence was outside China, where she said it was quite widespread.

Caught off-guard with this large and rather complicated question, I did not have time to ask Jiang exactly what the government was trying to transform China into. Our conversation on social equality was cut short by the arrival of two motorcycles that would transport us up the mountain to Fengxi. My driver, a large woman with short black hair, quickly took the lead. The road, empty of people and vehicles, was very smooth. The absence of potholes, which plague the majority of roads in China, meant that this road was very new. The road was flanked with bamboo trees and small bushes.

Half an hour, later the road ended at Fengxi. As we drove into the small square in the centre of the village, a group of older women and a few children turned around and stared at me in surprise. I was a foreigner in a village that had few Chinese visitors. But then I noticed that they were also staring at Jiang. In her ‘designer’ clothes, she was almost as much a foreigner as I.

“There are only old and young people here because everyone else has gone to work in the factories along the coast,” Jiang whispered to me.

Her friend Xui Li appeared from inside a house. They threw their arms around each other and giggled together for a few minutes. Xui Li, was shorter than Jiang and wore glasses, a pink sweater and jeans. She was an English teacher in a town an hour and half from Fengxi and was home for the weekend visiting her parents.

Although they looked very different, Xui Li quickly asserted herself as just as proud of China as Jiang. She described Fengxi as having 200 inhabitants who lived happily in the forest, which was known for herbs and plants used in Chinese medicine. Her enthusiasm to educate me on the greatness of rural life was difficult to disengage from. It was after some trying that I interjected that it would be nice to walk through Fengxi and see the bamboo forest.

Xui Li nodded and turned around and began a march through Fengxi. It didn’t take long. The village was tiny. The houses were made of mud bricks and wood, and all appeared drafty. Chickens, goats and ducks meandered around the front yards.

Xui Li explained that the government gave the residents of Fengxi a small yearly subsidy, but otherwise their only income came from farming bamboo. Every family had its own section of the forest to cultivate and cut bamboo from. Every family also had two or three parcels of land of about one Mao each on which they grew vegetables and rice. There were so many vegetable and rice farmers in China that not all the crops could be sold in the market, and people in Fengxi preferred to eat what they grew.

These tiered plots of farmland lay at the edge of the village. Separated by long lines of mud mixed with hay that prevented them from being washed away during the rainy season, the land was currently not being used because the cold made it difficult to grow food.

The government had given the land to the residents of Fengxi in 1978, the year China officially began economic reforms. Although the state technically owns the land, it allowed the farmers to use the land without paying rent and to do whatever they pleased with what they produced.

The land, both the rice and vegetable plots and the sections of bamboo forest, belonged to the villages in all but name. This was a huge departure from the hardline communist policies that existed a generation ago. Then, the CPC-led government would never have allowed something so similar to private ownership for the peasants.

Such a departure had come from an acknowledgement by China’s leaders that the policies of the Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward had been, if not complete failures, not suitable enough to meet the needs of the country’s massive population growth. When Mao Zedong’s death brought to power more realistic leaders, it was the fact that China was facing mass famines and impending popular unrest that forced the change in policies that made the country what it is today: among other things, it had permitted the farmers greater control of their lives.

The bamboo forest began at the edge of the rice and vegetable plots. It was dense and continued to the top of the mountain. The bamboo trees were tall and as thick around as two wrists. They were so numerous that the forest took on a dark green hue.

Depending on how much bamboo it grew on its section, each family could earn between two hundred and one thousand yuan per year. The bamboo was sold only once a year, in March, when construction companies sent trucks to Fengxi and bought the bamboo to use as scaffoldings for China’s many construction projects.

There were also some thin pine trees in the forest. Trying to avoid soil erosion, the government had banned the villagers from cutting them down, but, said Xui Li, the construction companies pay one hundred yuan for each pine tree and only twenty yuan for each bamboo tree. The pine trees had more uses, and they were often cut down and secretly sold to the construction companies. Despite repeated warnings from the government, soil erosion was not the villagers’ primary concern.

Xui Li led the way to her family’s section of the bamboo forest. Each family’s section was marked off with older bamboo trees with red symbols painted on them or large rocks or other natural formations. The section that belonged to Xui Li’s family stretched from a small river to the edge of the trail to a cluster of two older bamboo trees and a pine. I noticed that most of the bamboo trees in her family’s section were older than the rest. When I asked about this, she smiled and started walking back down the trail to Fengxi.

Xui Li’s job teaching English had made it possible for her parents to no longer have to farm the bamboo. The first woman from Fengxi to graduate from university – in fact, only the third person in the village to ever attend – Xui Li earned two thousand yuan a month working as an English teacher at a small school down the mountain from Fengxi. Her chief monthly expense was an extensive insurance package which she had purchased as soon as she had received her first paycheque. After paying that, she gave five hundred yuan a month to her parents, spending what was left over on food, clothes and paying the truck driver who brought her home to visit her parents every weekend. She even saved money to occasionally take trips to Fujian and Hubein provinces.

“I am a new teacher,” she said. “I teach children the basics of English – colours, objects and the alphabet. That is why my English is not very good. When I’m done working, I go to my room or window shop online. It is a little boring.”

“But there are many handsome men that are interested in you,” Jiang teased her.

“Yes, but I do not want to get married yet. I will get married at 28. Now I am 25,” Jiang said. “I am a very important person in my family. I want to stay a very important person, so I want to be able to make money. My husband will cherish me more.”

The girl had a particularly obvious case of the ‘little princess syndrome’, a social condition that had gripped the maturing generation in China and caused some concern that they will prove themselves too spoiled and revered to run China with the same effectiveness of their elders. Meeting Xui Li, I understood how it had happened. The generation of Chinese in their 20s had been made to feel that they were the most important part of their household by their parents, who were poor and struggling. The youth were their parents’ only chance of escaping poverty, and so they were encouraged to feel they were special in order for them to achieve as much as possible.

Xui Li described how after she was born her father left Fengxi to work in a factory along the coast. He worked in factories for 12 years to save the money necessary to send Xui Li to university.

“He told me that he was doing it for me,” Xui Li said. “My father was sacrificed for my future, and now I must pay him back and take care of my parents as they get older.”

Xui Li’s father, Zhang, joined us for the walk through the bamboo forest. Thin and lithe, he had had corroding black teeth, but a bright, charismatic smile. When I asked him how productive the bamboo farming had been for Fengxi, he said, “It depends on the government how much we earn.”

He took us further up the mountain to where two villagers were cutting bamboo trees. On the way, we passed an older couple who were carrying bushels of bamboo on their backs. They were at least in their 70s. “They do not have any children. That is why they still have to work,” Jiang said.

Fengxi, China. February 2009

Fengxi, China. February 2009

Two villagers who were cutting the bamboo stopped when we approached. There was a long stream of cut bamboo trees cascading down the side of the mountain to where the older couple picked them up and brought them to storage shelters near Fengxi’s entrance.

The villagers claimed that they could cut 3,000 kg of bamboo a day, working for six hours. Wanting to demonstrate his own bamboo-cutting abilities, Zhang took a curved knife in a white sheath hanging from a tree, strapped the sheath around his waist with the knife at the small of his back, and approached a bamboo tree.

In less than a minute, he cut down the tree with short deliberate hacks, quickly sheathing the knife and lifting the tree off its stump when it began to teeter, controlling its descent by running along with it till it fell.

He then began cutting off the thin branches with quick, hard cuts. Done with this, he pushed the tree with his foot and sent it onto a large pile that was going down the side of the mountain.

Zhang was proud that his daughter had graduated university and immediately had found a job. He had lived in the factory worker’s dormitories and had rarely taken a vacation in order to save 1,000 yuan a month to pay for Xui Li’s education. “I worked hard to send my daughter to university,” he said. “It was also my own self-preservation.”

The initial years of investment had paid off well. He was now living the dream of the Chinese farmer. With his daughter’s salary taking care of his basic living expenses, he and his wife had been able to retire. Most of Zhang’s days were now spent drinking tea outside his home, which was one of the nicest and best maintained in the village.

It had a dining room, a kitchen and three bedrooms. In the kitchen, there was a wood-burning stove used to boil water, and a small gas stove. Xui Li said that gas stoves had arrived in Fengxi in 1992. One container of gas sometimes had to last a family an entire year.

Water was piped into their home from off the mountain. A single faucet let the water out into a bucket. Xui Li claimed that the water was clean enough to drink without boiling, but all the same I declined when she offered me a glass.

Over tea, I asked Zhang what he thought were the main differences between his generation and his daughters’? Were the reforms that China began 20 years ago felt in the villages?

He nodded. Even in villages as remote as Fengxi, the reforms had been felt. Most importantly, the reforms had given the farmers a sense of ownership and responsibility for the land. While they still earned little or no money from it, having control of the land ensured that no one went hungry. They still could not afford to pay for a hospital when they were sick or go far from Fengxi, but Zhang said that simply being fed was an improvement great enough that he was satisfied with what had happened in China in recent years.

“We have freedom now in China,” he said. “I am living better than my father lived. China is becoming stronger. I am proud of that.”

Dabu, China. February 2009.

Dabu, China. February 2009.

Jiang was considering the world around her again.

“I see American movies and am very curious about the relationships,” she said.

We were back at the hotel sitting on padded chairs and flipping through uninteresting television channels. Jiang was making comments about the passing scenes, which at this hour of night tended to be romantic. She said that the kind of relationships presented in Western movies were not frequent in China. She was 24 but had only had one boyfriend. When they had spent time together, they went on walks and she had “never done anything with him”.

This fact did not particularly seem to bother her. The romance she saw in Western movies was interesting, she said, but not something she necessarily wanted for herself. Like her friend Xui Li, she was focused on establishing herself with a good career before going onto marriage, or any kind of romantic relationship. She was not even very sure that there actually was romance in marriage. She desired only a functionality that would allow her to be independent of a partner, but at the same time provide her with some kind of companionship.

This was a very modern and thought-out view on romance and a career. She acknowledged being more ambitious than many of her peers, but saw nothing radical in her demands. She thought her ideas were very appropriate and practical.

As she guided me around Fengxi, I realised that Jiang was part of the new intelligentsia that was coming into being in China. It was a group of people who had in the last few years become part of the growing middle class, and saw nothing wrong with wealth and intellectualism, the very things that had been so derided during the Cultural Revolution.

How much the class divide had changed in China had been illustrated earlier in the evening when Jiang and I went for a walk.

Zhang had arranged for us to be motorcycled back to the hotel. After letting ourselves in, we realised that it was still relatively early and walked down the road to see if there was anything open. There wasn’t. The single store was dark. Soft music floated from a house next to the hotel, but otherwise the only signs of life were a middle-aged woman and her son who were squatting under a street lamp past the store.

The woman told us that they were out on the street because her elder son was in the middle of a violent fit. They had left him alone in the house while waiting for him to stop. The periodic fits had started a few months before when a schoolteacher gave him the news that his father had been killed in a car accident. The teacher apparently hadn’t been particularly sensitive while breaking the news, and the woman’s son had been traumatized.

When I asked where they were originally from, the woman gestured at the other side of the mountain. She had land there in a small village of seven families, but the government had recently decided that the village was too far from other towns or cities and brought them to live in the area around the hotel. The woman hadn’t wanted to move, but she had been given no choice. A house had been provided for her and she worked as a day labourer, cutting bamboo, doing laundry or cooking for whoever would hire her.

She didn’t make enough money to take her son who suffered the violent fits to a doctor but, like the villagers in Fengxi, she earned enough money to eat. Any hopes of elevating herself out of poverty, as Zhang had done, were gone. Because of the violent fits, university was impossible for her older son; her younger son, who was with her under the street light, had recently failed the entrance exam. All hopes of her children saving her were gone.

As we walked off, Jiang said, “I think those are the poorest people I have ever met.”

This was too much of a juxtaposition to go unobserved. Jiang had just joined the CPC. Founded as the “party of the people,” the CPC had originally been composed of peasants, the people who believed in Mao’s promises of uprising and class struggle – people who had perhaps been very similar to the peasant woman we had just spoken to.

Although she had been born in a village, Jiang had been raised in enough wealth that she had never met the poorest of these peasants. She was decisively not one of them. Her modern views and sense of style made her far more cosmopolitan than anyone who had joined the Red Guards during the 1960s and 1970s.

The day after we visited Fengxi, we visited her parents in the town of Dabu. Her father’s cooking was indeed excellent, the family apartment spacious. Although they were suspicious, neither parent outright objected to Jiang travelling alone with a man and welcomed me in their home.

After lunch with her parents we went to a park in the middle of Dabu to wait for a taxi back to Maizhou. Along the way, we saw a scene that was widely prevalent in China: a woman working farmland framed by traditional houses backed by large apartment and office buildings in the process of being constructed. As cities in China swelled, they seemed to overtake the countryside. The people without the money to move into the more modern buildings continued to live in their ramshackle homes and farms surrounded by skyscrapers.

We sat in the park, which had only recently been constructed. I wanted to ask Jiang why, exactly, she had decided to join the CPC – something that seemed to take an effort – and what she hoped to gain from it.

A mischievous smile on her face, Jiang was surprisingly candid. Joining the CPC meant that she had a chance to escape a fate that she deplored: teaching primary school children basic English in one of Guandong’s small towns.

What she wanted was to live in Shenzhen, China’s famous special economic zone and the most developed city in Guangdong, and work as either a teacher or in business. Failing that, she wanted to work for the local government in Maizhou, the city where she attended university. To get either job, it was necessary to be a party member.

“That is the first step,” Jiang said. “Next, you need connections. It is best if you have a family member who has a power position. That is how most people get good jobs. If you don’t know someone, you have to pay for the connections. For a job in Shenzhen, maybe you have to pay a lot, but it is a good investment. Your starting salary is also a lot. There are bonuses and the salary is quickly raised.”

Just as the countryside in China had changed itself from being a place of food shortages and ceaseless difficulties, China’s infamous Communist Party had also transformed itself. It was becoming attractive to people such as Jiang, people who were exposed to other cultures and saw the CPC as a way to elevate their social position.

“If you are a party member and work in business, it is a way to smooth promotions. If you work in politics, it is a way to move up,” said Prof Srikant Kondapally of Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. “The reason why the CPC is still strong within China is that it has adapted to the evolving situation in the country. The CPC originally claimed to represent the broad masses, but has shifted from representing the working class, as it did under Mao, to now also representing the rising middle class, the capitalist class. The CPC now appeals to everyone. This one change was crucial.”

Kondapally went on to say that the CPC was the chief representation of the “advanced production forces”, the people who work in business and industry, the exporters and entrepreneurs. An estimated 20 million private entrepreneurs have joined the CPC in recent years.

The party’s overall goal had shifted from class revolution to reviving China to a place of greatness on par with where it was during its “Middle Kingdom” period, when it was the largest and most powerful force in Asia. This thinking, Kondapally said, was a by-product of China’s desire for Great Power status. China had waited for centuries, but it was now emerging again as a powerful nation. And the CPC, the government, had the full backing of the Chinese people, who – despite their frustrations with the effects of the global financial crisis – are aware of the improvements that have come to their country in a relatively short time.

Rural China. February 2009.

Rural China. February 2009.

A few days later Jiang came to visit me in Shenzhen. We ate a noodle lunch and walked through one of the city’s many malls. Jiang peered inside each of the stores on all three levels, sprayed me with perfume, and described the products as overwhelming and wonderful. She was wearing Capri jeans and a loose silky blouse and sandals with massive stiletto heels. In Shenzhen, she fit in.

The last time Jiang was in Shenzhen, she had been working for the summer in a factory, putting price tags on items and checking the colour quality of stickers. She worked 10 hours a day and made decent money, but neither a job in a factory or as an English teacher in a small town would satisfy her. She wanted more.

And the CPC, she felt, could give her that. She lowered her voice and chose her words when talking about the party. “I thought it would be a good idea to join,” she said. “Maybe I think joining gives me some kind of status. I don’t know. They haven’t done anything for me yet. I really don’t think it is so different from your country. Without a lot of contacts, you cannot do anything.”

She had first joined the CPC’s youth wing. Then, after several exams and interviews, she was nominated to join the party. The final question at the last interview was, simply, “Why do you want to join the Communist Party?”

“I told them it was my patriotic duty,” Jiang said. She bowed her head and grinned. “Actually I don’t know. I want to control relationships between people. I want a good job. Also, if I get a job with the local government, there is not very much to do. There is much time for relaxing.”

I ask her if she knew what happened at Tiananmen Square in 1989.

“Tiananmen Square? I know something bad happened. I do not know exactly what. Something bad happened with the government. I do not want to know. Some good things happen and some bad things happen. I only want to know the good things. I let everything else go through my head.”

This was a new China. It was still struggling, going through massive domestic changes, but the energy and confidence felt by the people was real.

The global financial crisis has made it necessary that China lessen its reliance on exporting products to the US and Europe and focus more on domestic consumption. This focus on the domestic market is a strategy that has already allowed India, the other Asian giant, to rapidly develop, although it has not been able to do so as rapidly or with such statistical impressiveness as China.

My intention had been to see the changing China from the ground. Of the world I had travelled thus far, Chinese peasants had been the most positive and expressed the most optimism in their future. China was also one of the few places in the world where an originally repressive and violent political party was transforming into a new entity, slowly adapting to the global reality.

The story of China’s growth to Great Power status is still evolving. There are many variables. The CPC still does not allow heavy dissent, as shown by the recent demonstrations by Uighurs in Xinjiang province. The CPC has shown the power and willingness to shut down large parts of the country. But if China continues to liberalize, how long can the CPC expect to maintain power? Will the CPC eventually allow itself to fade?

In Shenzhen, Jiang grinned at me. “You must come back here,” she said. “No one in China knows what will happen next.”

Chinese New Year Celebrations at Jiming Temple in Nanjing, China.

Chinese New Year Celebrations at Jiming Temple in Nanjing, China.

Homes destroyed by the local government in Nanjing, China that will be replaced by buildings similar to those in the background.

Homes destroyed by the local government in Nanjing, China that will be replaced by buildings similar to those in the background.


Written by Justin Vela

September 22, 2009 at 9:12 pm

Posted in Asia

Tagged with , , , , ,

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