In “The End of the Chinese Dream,” Gerard Lemos presents contemporary China as an angst- ridden place where the economic miracle of the past two decades has left a vast swath of the population fretting about the future.
It’s not the lack of democracy or human rights that keeps the Chinese awake at night. Rather it’s the gnawing fear of unemployment, soaring health care costs and the prospect of old age with insufficient savings.
The book’s findings are based on research Lemos began in 2007 in Chongqing, a city little visited by foreigners at the time. It has since become associated with the murder in November of British businessman Neil Heywood by Gu Kailai, the wife of disgraced former Communist Party boss Bo Xilai.
Lemos sidesteps the ban on academics conducting independent social research by adapting a millennia-old Confucian tradition called the Wish Tree, where supplicants tie their desires to branches of a tree in temple courtyards.
Lemos obtains permission from local authorities to create his own “trees” in public squares. He invites citizens to name a single event that most changed their lives, their biggest worries and their wishes. He replicates the exercise in two neighborhoods in Beijing, receiving 2,586 responses in all.
The majority of concerns can be linked to the one-child policy, massive urbanization and the abolition of China’s iron rice bowl, which guaranteed employment, housing, healthcare and pensions until it was abandoned after the economic reforms of the late 1980s.
Some respondents air specific grievances linked to widespread corruption by local officials, often in connection with land, while others have varied ambitions. A 21-year-old woman wants to lose weight, a 22-year-old man hopes for twins, and a 12-year-old boy wants to be the Chinese Bill Gates.
During the exercise, Lemos meets a Chongqing widow with a lump in her stomach whose daughter lives far away in Guangdong.
“I think it’s cancer,” she explains through her tears. “I can’t afford to go to the doctor and I haven’t told my daughter. I don’t want to ruin her life.”
Unfortunately this is the only case where Lemos is able to flesh out the stories behind the responses, leaving the reader wishing he’d had the chance to make follow up interviews.
As a result, the book lacks the rich narratives found in Leslie Chang’s “Factory Girls” and Zhang Xinxin and Sang Ye’s “Chinese Lives,” which make those works such memorable reads.
Still, Lemos displays a fine eye for detail, seen here in his description of a temple courtyard.
“Thin blue plumes of smoke curled and floated up. Above them, caged birds hung from the branches of trees. One of them, a super-clever mynah bird, within minutes started to mimic with eerie accuracy the unusual laugh of a foreigner.”
Instead he uses his findings to discuss broader trends, including environmental degradation, widening income inequality, the resurgence of Confucianism and the future of the Communist Party, which he finds morally bankrupt.
His observations will not come as a surprise to readers who have kept up with media coverage and other writers whom he relies upon heavily in his extensively footnoted work.
For example, he writes that the myth of “inscrutable Chinese fatalism” is debunked by the spread of social problems such as mental illness, drugs, prostitution, suicide and widespread protests -- themes that have been extensively covered elsewhere.
But for the uninitiated eager to look beyond the veneer of China’s glitzy coastal cities and official propaganda, Lemos’s book is an excellent primer.
(Frederik Balfour is a reporter-at-large for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)
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