Just returned to the US after a three week China trip. The jet lag is starting to clear, and I can finally return to the blog. I wasn't able to write as I traveled because, at first, the pace of the touring was too hectic and, later, I was swept up in finishing and then presenting a conference paper. A busy time. Before I get to some socio-political observations, let me just mention the sightseeing we did.
The highlights for me, once we got past the usual Beijing-Xi'an thing, was our return to Hangzhou, where we hadn't been since 1989, the fabulous Huizhou region of Anhui, and the stunning Huangshan. All of these places are well worth a trip for anyone planning a China vacation. Huizhou and Huangshan, in particular, provided a nice respite from the urban crowds and pollution.
As I traveled, and then as I stayed afterward to attend an academic conference, I sensed a certain satisfaction in the slices of social life that I observed. Unlike my last trip, in 2011, which took me to a poor rural area of Yunnan, this time I was firmly ensconced among the urban middle class. And, generally, my impression is that the urban middle class is fairly comfortable with the materialist opportunities it enjoys and, also, largely happy with the growing cosmopolitanism and cultural hybridity of the major cityscapes. While the government and some intellectuals continue to worry about a loss of "Chinese culture," the urban middle class is quite willing to embrace social and cultural practices that cross and blend and erode national boundaries. Let me give three examples:
1) The Wuxi Ladies on the Beijing train. I took the gaotie (high speed train) from Shanghai to Beijing last week. And I should say, since this year marks the 30th anniversary of my first trip to China, that the train service itself is great. Comfortable seats; smooth ride; efficient service.
I was riding second class to see what the experience might be like for the average Chinese passenger (whom I realize is be better off than the average Chinese citizen, given the ticket price). Three ladies got on the train at Wuxi, the first stop out of Shanghai. Two took up the seats immediately next to me and the other directly across the aisle. They seemed to be typical of the rising middle class. Here they were, on the fast train going to Beijing, quite literally socially mobile. Each had an android cell phone; the woman next to me also had a tablet: all of the modern media conveniences. They stocked up on KFC before boarding. My neighbor put a movie on her tablet, close enough for me to see and hear. It seemed to be set in Shanghai, or some other high-end urban environment. The characters were upper middle class: fashionable clothes, well-appointed living quarters, first-world problems, perhaps similar to the new movie Tiny Times (which I have not seen). I imagine it is a lifestyle to which the Wuxi ladies aspire.
But they’re not quite there yet. While materially advantaged, they were behaviorally rough. They did not feign a false female modesty but draped their feet on the small seat trays in front of them and schemed to get better seats. Their sharp and direct Wuxi language, unintelligible to a Mandarin speaker, did not suggest the refinement of the traditional elite. They are nouveaux-riches, perhaps not that far from more modest circumstances: a marginal city block or, even, a dusty agricultural town.
But they were completely nonchalant about the jumble of inter-cultural commodities they were using to define themselves materially: South Korean phones; faux French hand bags; American food. I imagine that the cries of neo-conservatives, who call for the preservation of some kind of authentic Chinese-ness, would fall on deaf ears with the Wuxi ladies. They simply want new, good, fun stuff; and, whatever that stuff is, it all now transforms into a globally-informed and novel experience of Chinese-ness.
2) The Wushan Night Market in Hangzhou. It was great to be back in Hangzhou. And while there my daughter and I paid a quick visit to the bustling night market in the midst of the city. It is a tight and hot and crowded place, jammed with stalls selling all sorts of things: clothes; shoes; DVDs; jewellery; bags; cell phone cases; cigarette lighters; you name it, they have it. For me, it was reminiscent of the Temple Street night market in Hong Kong, or even the Shilin night market in Taibei. Wushan is not quite as big and institutionalized as Shilin (I haven't been there in a few years...) but the energy was similar.
So what? What does Wushan tell us about middle class aspirations in China more generally? The idea of "emulative spending," which I hit upon after a 2010 trip to Shanghai, is apt here. This concept is usually framed in class terms: the commodities - the brands - consumed by the rich become the markers of upward mobility for the middle class, who buy certain items to emulate the habits and culture of the rich. But there is also a global aspect here: Chinese middle class consumers buy international brands - and the Wushan market is full of real and knockoff global brands - to signify their upward mobility and cultural cosmopolitanism. Wushan, then, is another node in the world-spanning network of bourgeois conspicuous consumption; it is linked, in this manner, not only to Hong Kong and Taibei, but also New York and London and Paris. The Hangzhou middle class, just like the Wuxi ladies, create their personal identities through this kind of globalized consumption, and they seem to have no qualms about what this might mean for more traditional notions of "Chinese-ness."
3) The Henan Students on the New York Plane. Coming home earlier this week, I found myself sitting next to two young teachers from Zhengzhou, Henan province. They were chaperoning 33 sixth grade students on a 10 day whirl-wind tour of New York, Boston, and Washington DC. Summer tours and summer camps in the US are becominng increasingly popular in the PRC. Parents see early exposure to US society and English-language immersion as an important educaitonal advantage: it might help them get into better colleges and open up career choices in the future. The tragic Asiana airline crash has exposed the dark side of this phenomenon: rip-off artists taking advantage of these parental desires with shady deals.
But the broader cultural dynamic here is the value placed on children learning English and gaining access to American culture. That is seen as a path to a better future. Some of the opposite occurs in the US. We now have elementary schools that provide Mandarin immersion programs. And that's great. But my sense is that the flow goes more in one direction than the other: America looms as more important in the Chinese cultural imagination and China does in the American. The rising Chinese middle class defines itself, and its children, in global cultural terms to a greater extent than does the American middle class (this is an empirical assertion, and I welcome evidence to the contrary).
What struck me about the two young teachers, and their happy students, on the plane was that they were from Zhengzhou. When one thinks of cultural hybridization in China, Shanghai comes immediately to mind, or Nanluoguxiang and Sanlituin in Beijing,or Guangzhou. But the process has spread much further in China. Zhengzhou parents who can afford the price (which I assume is significant), are quite willing to find a way to expose their twelve year old children to America, because that provides a cultural and economic advantage. Henan is moving out into the world.
Two thoughts now by way of conclusion.
First, I want to emphasize again the relative comfort with which average Chinese people experience the increasing hybrid nature of their cultural identities. That, at least, is my sense. And this stands in contrast to some conservative intellectuals who fret about preserving some other (more traditional?) expressions of "Chinese culture." The Confucian scholar Jiang Qing comes immediately to mind here. He's the fellow (that's right: not Mao's wife!) who wants to establish Confucianism as a state religion and also as a basis for a new constitutional order. His frames "Confucianism" as fundamentally opposed to liberalism, which leaves little room for cultural combinations and accommodations. He is referred to by some as a Confucian fundamentalist.
Whatever we might think of Jiang's version of Confucianism, it appears that the Chinese middle class is not at all interested in what he is saying. Jiang is searching for a kind of "Chinese" cultural authenticity that is just not possible under conditions of globalized modernity/postmodernity and, more importantly, holds little or no significance for the Wuxi ladies on the Beijing train.
Second, the middle class aspirations I have sketched above have political implications as well. Generally, my sense is that the people I observed were happy. The possibilities of new cultural expression drawn from a wide array of globally available commodities and practices are quite alluring. And for many people, these new cultural expressions can fit comfortably within a contemporary understanding of what it means to be "Chinese."
Also, the regime's formula for legitimation – trading material gain for political acquiescence – is still working. And I suspect it will continue to work for some time yet. It would take a very hard landing, an economic downturn that undermined the middle class's complacency. There will certainly continue to be protests and demonstrations, like the recent one that stopped a polluting plant in Guangdong, but those are essentially part of the system now. The regime can process those kinds of events without large-scale violence, and adapt to keep a step ahead of real political challenge.
Ironically, however, if my observations are correct, it might make sense for the CCP to accept a wider definition of "Chineseness," one that recognizes the inevitabilty of cultural hybridity in a global economy. Because it is precisely those sorts of novel inter-cultural identities that the Chinese middle class embraces most comfortably today.