I'm reading for about an hour every day on my lunch break and it is great. I'm really happy to be getting into books as opposed to focusing on news features on the web, what I've been more into the past couple years. I do have internet access at my work and could theoretically surf the web and/or blog during my free time, but I would prefer to get away from the desk where I spend my days. Going outside everyday with a book (no, I don't use an iPad or Kindle to read books) is something I'm really enjoying this spring.
The last book I finished was James Fallows' Postcards From Tomorrow Square that I referenced in my last blog post.
Fallows is a very humble yet keen observer. His perspective, as someone who came to China with a fairly blank slate (ie. not a "China hand"), has been refreshing. One passage in the book was particularly striking to me. It is a notion that I've thought about before that Fallows lays out very well.
From pages 92 - 93 from Fallows' book:
Has the factory boom been good for China? Of course it has. Yes, it creates environmental pressures that, if not controlled, could pollute China and the world out of existence. The national government's current Five-Year Plan - the 11th, running through 2010 - has as its central theme China's development as a "harmonious society," of hexie shehui, a phrase heard about as often from China's leadership as "global war on terror" has been heard from America's. In China, the phrase is code for attempting to deal with income inequalities, especially, the hardships of farmers and millions of migrant laborers. But it is also code for at least talking about protecting the environment.This is a very slippery slope. In no way do I romanticize what migrant workers in China go through on a daily basis. While I never saw factory life too much while in China, I was exposed to the lives of plenty of construction workers, restaurant workers, and day laborers while living in Xi'an. Their lives are utterly grueling.
And, yes, throughout China's boom many people have been mistreated, oppressed, sometimes worked to death in factories. Even those not abused may be lonely and lost, with damaging effects on the country's social fabric. But this was also the story of Britain and America when they built their great industries, their grand turbulent industrial cities, and ultimately their great industrial middle classes. For China, it is far from the worst social disruption the country has endured in the last 50 years. At least this upheaval, unlike the disastrous Great Leap Forward of the 1950s and Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and early 1970s, has some benefits for individuals and the nation.
Some Westerners feel that even today's "normal" Chinese working conditions amount to slave labor - perhaps $225 a month, no life outside the factory, work shifts so long there's barely time to do more than try to sleep in a jam-packed dormitory. Here is an uncomfortable truth I'm waiting for some Chinese official to point out: The woman from the hinterland working in Shenzhen is arguably better off economically than an American in Chicago living on minimum wage. She can save most of what she makes and feel she is on the way up; the American can't and doesn't. Over the next two years, the minimum wage in the United States is expected to rise to $7.25 an hour. Assuming a 40-hour work week, that's just under $1,200 per month, or about 5 times the Chinese factory wage. But that's before payroll deductions and the cost of food and housing, which are free or subsidized in China's factory towns.
Saying that, a person making minimum-wage in the US also has it rough. Fallows wrote this piece a few years ago and you can tell it's dated by a couple of the expressions he used. Although it is not totally up-to-date to 2010, what he wrote still applies. In fact, I think it's probably even more accurate now.
China has a plethora of domestic issues. It doesn't do me any good to try to list them out. Everyone reading this has seen them all before. But what is going on in China, and what has gone on for the past couple decades, has undeniably brought up millions of people.
And given the state of the US economy and how difficult it is to find work, standards between the two countries' citizens is at least worth discussing. The unemployment rate of young black men in the US is 34.5%. Generation Y's unemployment rate as a whole is 18.5%. Retirement isn't a reality for the millions upon millions of baby boomers entering their 60s. The American Dream® for many is fading or has been completely lost.
Qian and I are lucky. We have enough work to live a comfortable life. But there are scores of very qualified people right now who can't make ends meet. People who are less qualified? Well, they simply have no options.
Although this post is something of a screed against the US, I know that there are things that still make the US great (which I still think it is). One of the most important things that America still has on China is a society that is governed by rule of law. The book I'm currently reading, Wild Grass by Ian Johnson, focuses on the darker aspects of China's rise, particularly its lawlessness. There are significant drawbacks to China's method of development. I'll surely quote a passage from that book sometime here in the coming days.