Now a growing player in the global market and a curious destination to many, China’s capitalist whitewash has been holding our attention. But how has China’s economic growth affected the working class? Mr. Lee* shares his experiences growing up in China, its newfound wealth and the dichotomy of morals and money.
It’s a quarter past two in the afternoon when I text Mr. Lee who is uncharacteristically late for our meeting. He’s coming to my Beijing apartment, as he felt it safer than a public space; someone could be listening. He’s confused by the elevator, and wants me to meet him in the lobby, which I do and am greeted with his typical warm smile.
I met Mr. Lee some 18 months ago, through an expat friend. His English has improved a great deal since we met , but my Chinese is minimal, so I’ll be relying on Google Translate to fill the gaps. He takes a seat at my dining room table, politely refusing any water, and only after some urging, he unzips his jacket, but does not take it off. After a few minutes of pleasantries, the conversation becomes the interview. He starts wringing his hands. He continues to do this for the next two and half hours.
Mr. Lee was born in 1969 in a small village on the outskirts of Beijing. He was the youngest of four children though one of his two sisters died as a child. His relationship with his brother is strained, though he is close with his surviving sister. Both parents have passed away and he now lives in a small siheyuan, a traditional courtyard residence connected by a series of alleys. To say Mr. Lee had grown up impoverished would be an understatement, there was no running water in his home, heat or insulation to survive the harsh Beijing winters, and basic food was a scarcity. He recalls his mother telling him of seeing a withered chicken dead drop dead in the street from starvation. He laughs at this as though reminiscing on a pleasant family memory.
We talk more about growing up in China just after the civil war. Though his family lived in poverty, a lack of toys did not deter the children in his village from childhood play. Mr. Lee recalls chasing cars with local boys, but the simple joys of childhood were not a removal from an unhappy home. His father was a cook for one of the ‘leaders’ of the time, and though this granted them some benefits such as leftovers, their windowless home could not keep out the devastation of what lay outside, and brought frustration in with it.
I ask Mr. Lee about his life now, and if it has improved since China opened up to foreign business. He says his life is better as he is able to modestly provide for his family, and even send his son to university. But after a moment of hesitation, he further explains that some things are worse now and he still fears his government. The air quality continues to decline, and healthcare is a luxury that most at his income level cannot afford. The speed of development is also a concern, as many villages are being bought through corrupt means and leaving many working Chinese homeless – unable to afford the apartments that have replaced their homes. And he does not trust his leaders.
The more I inquire of his opinions on his government, the more tentative he becomes to answer; insofar as jumping at the sound of an adjoining apartment door. Mr. Lee is afraid to be honest because he knows of people who have disappeared for sharing their opinion. He tells me of prisoners in work camps who have never seen trial, and the resort-like penitentiaries for corrupt officials. He believes in democracy and that China should use its newfound wealth proactively and model themselves after countries like South Korea. He wants transparency from Chinese officials and income fairness and equality; he wants socialism but doesn’t believe it truly exists.
Mr. Lee likes foreigners, he thinks capitalism is good for the economy. But he feels that the Chinese have become indifferent to each other; the sense of community he had during his humble beginnings has broken down. The role of Confucius ideologies are taught but not practiced, “Chinese people have traded morals for money”, he says “and that has made China a bad place.”
As an expat living in China, I can see the pollution, I can see the military presence around Tianamen Square or in front of the Forbidden City. But I can also eat at western restaurants and shop at American brand name stores, I talk freely with my friends over a bottle of Canadian wine, and access the New York Times online (albeit with a VPN). But in that lies Mr. Lee’s fear. Foreign relations and economic growth has brought a false sense of freedom in an effort to shroud the regime that China really is; a disillusioned republic corrupted by greed.
*Name has been changed to protect identity