Monday, Jun. 18, 2012
The Year of Living Dangerously
By Hannah Beech / Beijing

Years of the dragon are dangerous. According to the lore of the Chinese zodiac, the mythical beast ushers in a 12-month period of power and prestige. Yet the dragon is also an unpredictable animal, a sinuous creature whose tail and head coil off in different directions.

Sure enough, 2012 is shaping up as an utterly unpredictable year in China. When the Lunar New Year began on Jan. 23, the hope was for orderliness and technocratic diligence to carry the months ahead. China undergoes a once-a-decade leadership transition later this year, and the script for a peaceful changeover from President Hu Jintao to Vice President Xi Jinping was written long ago. The world too was depending on the continuing strength of the Chinese economy to buoy other countries beset by financial crises.

But hopes of political stability in China were shaken when the ruling Communist Party purged its most charismatic mandarin, giving the world a glimpse of the rot within the system: massive graft, abuse of power and an income gap growing so rapidly that the government has stopped releasing official figures. A high-profile flight into American custody by a legal activist spotlighted another failing of modern China: this is a legalist society obsessed with bureaucracy and endless regulations, yet it lacks the rule of law.

The economy, which has expanded so miraculously over the past three decades, has begun to show signs of strain: exports, foreign direct investment and bank lending are all down. Debt is rising, as is the number of protests by farmers and factory workers alike. Chinese consumers may be richer than ever, and predictions of 8%-plus growth for this year don't seem so shabby. Still, the state control that created the most remarkable financial expansion of our time is now threatening to choke the economy.

The library of doomsday books and articles about China's impending demise is crowded. The country is, no, not going to collapse, yet ignoring the warning signs is perilous too. China's leaders know how tricky a course they have to chart, and a populace empowered by the Internet is speaking up and acting out. The structural problems of modern China — a corrupt political system, an inefficient state capitalism — cannot be solved by a flick of the dragon's tail. More than anything, 2012 marks a change in the Chinese psyche. The easy hubris of the early years of this century has been replaced by a wariness of the future. Despite China's long economic boom, Chinese today are less happy than they were two decades ago, according to a new study by the University of Southern California. The Chinese dragon awoke three decades ago. But in this year of living dangerously, where is it headed?

≪ 危険な年 ≫







Monday, Jun. 18, 2012
In Their Hands
By Hannah Beech / Beijing

China's youth will determine the future of their country---and likely that of the world.

On a rare blue-sky day in late May, Zhang Kuan roared down the highway from Beijing to the industrial port city of Tianjin. The 32-year-old's mission? To pick up his new gunmetal-gray McLaren MP4-12C (price tag: $870,000). The founder in 2009 of the Beijing Sports Car Club, Zhang has parlayed his self-made fortune — derived, he says vaguely, from "finance businesses, like investment, real estate, insurance" — into his true passion.

On weekends, the buzz-cut-sporting Beijing native — attired in the T-shirt, sneaker and dog-tag ensemble of the global street — gathers with other youthful members of China's new rich to show off their automotive treasures. As Zhang coaxes a throaty growl out of one supercar, each of which costs a minimum of $200,000, a flock of opulently tressed and scantily dressed female companions smiles encouragingly. The club, which now boasts 700 members nationwide, has also organized rent-a-luxury-car tours of Las Vegas, Southeast Asia and Europe.

It's all quite a change for a man from a modest family background who bought his first vehicle, a boxy Volkswagen Santana, in 1999. Less than a decade later, in a turbocharged upgrade that symbolizes how quickly fortunes are made in China, Zhang acquired a Ferrari and then a lime-green Lamborghini — today just part of his fleet of ultra-fast autos. "My father's generation, they don't crave things like I do," says Zhang, who also indulges in high-end watches, cigars and alcohol. "His luxury is for the whole family to be together. People in my generation, we always want the next thing. It's how we express ourselves and live our dreams."

That same afternoon in a grimy stretch of north Beijing, where thick dust coats the fresh green of weeping willows, Yin Junqin idles away another day of deferred dreams. The 26-year-old dips into a book on ancient Chinese history, shoots some hoops and catches up on the day's headlines online. Sustenance comes from a $1.50 lamb-bone soup. By all accounts, Yin should be a success story. The studious son of pig farmers, he was the first member of his family to attend college, graduating from a top technology university in the port city of Qingdao. Yet upon heading to Beijing four years ago, his career stalled before it even began. "I came imagining success," he says, "but the reality has been cruel."

The longest job Yin has managed to hold down was for six months, and the salaries he commands aren't better than those of a migrant laborer. Right now he's between jobs again and living in a dingy dorm filled with other members of the so-called ant tribe — the millions of unemployed or poorly paid college graduates who are packed together in urban tenements. "If you go back home to the countryside without a job, then you've failed," Yin says, sitting on his bottom bunk, surrounded by a laptop, self-help manuals and biographies of successful entrepreneurs. A suit bag hangs from the side of the bed, and he promises that he will start passing out résumés again soon. Meanwhile, a roommate hunches over a computer, coding software for his insatiable bosses. "For my parents' generation," Yin says, "not starving was enough. For me, I want a lot more."

Every generation can claim singularity, but the roughly 250 million Chinese born after 1980 who are now in the job market are truly a breed apart. Products of China's one-child policy, these coddled youngsters are the first in the history of the People's Republic to have no memory of the chaos and deprivation of the first decades of Communist Party rule. They are the future of a presumptive superpower and, in that respect, seem destined to play a colossal role in the future of humanity itself.

Over the past half-century, China has moved more people out of poverty than the entire U.S. population. Almost all rich are nouveau, and the average age of China's moneyed class is far younger than in the West. Even those who can only dream about cruising in a luxury auto are experiencing unprecedented freedoms. "This is the first generation in modern China that has been allowed to make real choices about its future," says Mary Bergstrom, the Shanghai-based author of All Eyes East: Lessons from the Front Lines of Marketing to China's Youth. "They're pioneers, whether it comes to their careers, traveling inside and outside of China, or taking advantage of all these different technologies that are transforming the country."

In many ways, the urban, educated fringes of the youth bulge — both the flashy supercar owners and the ant tribe — will characterize their generation more than those occupying the statistical middle ground. The country's ever widening wealth gap is creating a society of haves and have-nots that communism was supposed to abolish. The leadership, which will undergo a once-a-decade transition later this year, is well aware that the tensions related to income disparity and unequal access to opportunity could prove as combustible a mix as the peasant rebellions of the past. "You can still see hope for the future among China's youth," says Lian Si, the Beijing sociologist who coined the term ant tribe. "But over the last couple of years, expectations have been dropping because some educated people can't find satisfying work. If this trend continues in China, it will endanger social harmony." That possibility is very real. After all, one of the catalysts of Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution was the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old frustrated by his lack of prospects.

Unlike their parents, who grew up in what was essentially a classless society, China's youth have matured in a country of hardening social stratification. Yes, it is still a place of remarkable opportunity. The average age of Chinese millionaires is 39, at least 15 years younger than in the U.S., according to Shanghai-based wealth monitor Hurun Report. China will be the world's largest luxury market by 2015, and around 45% of its luxury consumers are under the age of 35, according to research by consultancy McKinsey & Co. The tastes and ambitions of China's young moneyed classes will dictate not only the direction of the local economy but also the way the world hones its sales pitches for this vital consumer market.

But with the economy slowing sharply, the trappings of the urban Chinese dream — the TV, the car, the overseas vacations and, most of all, an apartment to call one's own — are increasingly out of reach for many young people, particularly those born after 1990 and coming of age in this uncertain economic era. How will a young generation weaned on double-digit growth rates cope with the disconnect between their exuberant expectations and the new economic reality? In May, the average 90-sq-m apartment in Beijing cost 1.8 million yuan (about $283,000), more than 30 times the capital's average annual income, while unemployment among recent university graduates has hovered as high as 25% over the past couple of years. "The collective memory of young Chinese people until a couple years ago was of a trajectory that always went up," says Kevin Lee, COO of China Youthology, a Beijing-based market-research firm. "Now young people are dealing with unemployment and rising costs and realizing that tomorrow might not be better than today."

China's latest generation of little emperors and empresses, as these only children are called, aren't shy about expressing their dissatisfaction with the way things stand. "Young people in China today believe that their opinions matter," says author Bergstrom. "This is a population that is more informed and vocal and committed to actively organizing." Digital communications are crucial in bringing them together and giving them a platform to express themselves. In 2010, young Chinese in the workforce spent an average of nearly 34 hours a week communicating electronically, whether through social networking, texting, instant messaging or even old-fashioned e-mail, according to a study by consultancy Accenture.

And that was back when China only had 40 million Weibo accounts, the Twitter-like microblogs that can subvert the government-controlled traditional media. (Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are blocked in China.) Today there are 300 million Weibo microblogs, and through them the youth are articulating everything from their tastes in luxury brands to their outrage over urban pollution and consumer-safety scandals. One of the most powerful emotions expressed online is resentment at the showy ways of princelings — the fuerdai (children of rich businessmen) and guanerdai (offspring of government officials) — with their sense of entitlement and access to guanxi, the web of relationships that is interwoven into Chinese business. The son of disgraced party boss Bo Xilai, Bo Guagua, who in May graduated from Harvard, where he tooled around in a Porsche, is just the latest representative of a gilded class to spark online furor.

The flowering of online expression disproves the oft repeated trope that China's youth are divorced from politics. True, they may not think it crucial to know the exact composition of the Politburo that helms the country. But they "consider themselves citizens, which their parents never did," says Zafka Zhang, a co-founder of China Youthology. "Rich or poor, they are concerned about the same social issues, like corruption or food safety, and if they don't see solutions being reached, they will organize and try to change things." Could a generational protest movement be the very thing that so scares a Communist Party that has ruled for 63 years? "Sure, everyone thinks so," says the fashionable 33-year-old, who attended graduate school in Britain before returning home to immerse himself in local youth culture. "But who knows when that will happen?" It has happened once before, and not too long ago: the 1989 Tiananmen protests gathered force, in part, as a student-led outcry against corruption, nepotism and the wild ways of young Communist Party elite.

< They Have a Dream >
What ties together both ends of the youth spectrum, more than anything else, is a quest for self-definition. For one spoiled princeling, identity may come from a private yacht. For another recent arrival to the big city, individuality may be expressed in a designer bag that costs months of salary. If that sounds facile, remember that the parents of today's youth had every lifestyle decision dictated by the Communist Party, from where to live to when to procreate. It's no accident that their progeny revel in wearable bling or joining peer groups with a high price of admission, whether it's a photography club, a polo team or a weekend romp with other golden-retriever fans. One of the most popular phenomena among young Chinese today is to take a so-called gap year — not between high school and college as in Britain, but at any point when the rat race gets too frenzied. The World Tourism Organization estimates that 100 million Chinese will travel overseas by 2020. If they can't find themselves at home, maybe their true selves will materialize abroad.

The young are far choosier when it comes to their careers. The high rate of unemployment among educated youth is due in part to the rapid expansion of higher education, which has flooded the market with too many graduates. (Last year, there were 6.6 million college graduates, compared with just 830,000 in 1998) But the persistent joblessness and constant job hopping among educated youth also have to do with a reluctance to accept positions considered beneath them. After all, their parents scrimped to pay their university tuition. How can they accept a job with poor pay? Surely life is about more than work for work's sake?

A decade ago, laborers were still flooding Chinese factories to provide for their families back home, who lived from one remittance to the next. Today's young workers, whether university graduates or line workers, face much less pressure to support relatives in the provinces. The style of family finances is shifting closer to a Western model. That explains why the ant-tribe dorms in Beijing, while outwardly shabby, are often crowded with expensive equipment like laptops and scanners. For these newly arrived youth, particularly those born after 1990, life in the big cities tends to be about personal satisfaction, not familial obligation. "I sent money home a few times when I first got here," says Yin. "My father doesn't mind. He said, 'After you're 18, you do what you want. It's your life.'"

In fact, many young people are counting on their parents to support them — not the other way around, as was the case for generations. Often parents are expected to buy their adult children apartments, which for young men are a prerequisite for luring a future mate. For others, it's about more than just real estate. Many of China's young rich are not self-made but inheritors of their parents' wealth. Beijing Sports Car Club founder Zhang stresses that his money is his own. But he acknowledges that around 70% of the club's members are spending family cash. Spanish supercar maker Tramontana says all the cars it sold in China two years ago were snapped up by young drivers; the oldest buyer of a car that can cost around $4 million was 28 years old. It doesn't help the image of such scions of privilege that there have been a series of high-profile traffic accidents in which young fuerdai and guanerdai have plowed into pedestrians — often with fatal consequences — and expected to drive away with impunity.

The reality may be that an increasing number of young Chinese will be left in the dust. But that doesn't mean they've given up hope — yet. A 2011 Gallup poll found that 80% of Chinese believed the economic conditions in their own communities were getting better, while only 5% felt they were declining. (By contrast, 48% of Americans said their local economic conditions were improving, while 43% said they were worsening.)

Xu Bo, a 24-year-old member of the ant tribe, lives in a cramped and dimly lit room he shares with seven other young men. At night, some of them snore under mosquito nets, while others play games on a shared laptop or read about Warren Buffett's path to riches. Beijing is the fourth city Xu has lived in since graduating from medical college. But the baby-faced nursing graduate is confident he'll find something in "technology or health or computers or whatever." An ant-tribe existence is not an end point for Xu but a way station to a better life he is sure will soon be his. "I want to stay in the big city so that I can have my own fuerdai one day," he says. "If I gave up and went home, then I'd have no hope of realizing that dream. My future children are depending on me."

≪ 将来は若者の手に ≫


5月下旬の珍しく晴れた日、チャン・クアンは高速道路にエンジン音を轟かせて、北京から工業港の天津市に向かっていた。32歳の青年の目的は・・・新しい暗褐色のMcLaren MP4-12C(価格870,000米ドル)の受け取りだ。2009年に北京スポーツカークラブを設立したチャンは、はっきりとは言わないが「投資、不動産、保険などの金融業」を手段に一代で富をなし、その財産を自分が本当にやりたいことへと広げてきた。






過去半世紀にわたって、米国の全人口を上回る人たちを中国は貧困から救い出した。ほとんど全ての富裕層は成金であり、中国人富裕層の平均年齢は西側諸国よりもはるかに若い。高級車を乗り回す夢を見ることができるだけでも、かつてなかった自由を満喫しているのだ。「現代中国では、自分の未来を本当に自由に選択できるようになった初めての世代なのです」『今アジアが面白い:市場最前線から中国青年への教訓(All Eyes East: Lessons from the Front Lines of Marketing to China’s Youth)』を著したメアリー・ベルイストロームは言う。「彼らは先駆者です。それが仕事であれ、国内外への旅行であれ、中国を変えている様々なテクノロジーを享受していることであれ、すべてにおいて」


本来は階級がないはずの社会に育った彼らの親たちとは違って、中国の若者は社会の階層分化が大きくなった社会で成長した。確かにそれでも大きなチャンスがある国だ。中国人百万長者の平均年齢は39歳で、上海を本拠にする中国富豪ランキング「胡潤百富(Hurun Report)」によれば、米国よりも少なくとも15歳若いという。中国は2015年には世界最大の高級品市場になり、そんな高級品の消費者の約45%は35歳以下になる、とコンサルティング会社マッキンゼー・アンド・カンパニーの調査は言う。中国の富裕青年層の嗜好と野望は、中国経済の行方だけでなく、この重要な消費者市場に世界が切り込む戦略を決定する。



それは中国でたった4千万の微博アカウントから始まった。微博はツィッターに似たミニブログで、政府が統制する従来のメディアに対抗しうるものだ (ツィッター、フェイスブック、You-tubeは中国ではブロックされてしまう)。今では3億の微博ミニブログがあり、好みの有名ブランドから都市公害や消費者の安全に関する不祥事に対する怒りまで、若者は何でもはっきりと書きこむ。投稿された最も激しい怒りの中には、富二代(富裕なビジネスマンの子弟)や官二代(役人の子弟)と呼ばれる小君主が振りかざす特権意識や、中国のビジネス界に根深い縁故主義・コネを利用する尊大さへの不満がある。失脚した党幹部薄熙来の息子・薄瓜瓜は5月にハーバード大を卒業したのだが、大学ではポルシェを乗り回し、富裕層の最も卑近な例としてネット上で猛烈な怒りをかった。

ネットで行き交う発言を見れば、中国でよく言われる若者の政治離れはない。実際、国家を指導する政治局のメンバーが誰かなど、さして重要だとは考えていないようだ。しかし『市民であるという自覚』はあり、それは彼らの親世代にはなかったものだ、とChina Youthology(中国若者学)の共同設立者、ザフカ・チャンは言う。「貧富の差に関わらず、汚職や食の安全など共通する社会問題に関心を持ち、解決が難しいと思えば仲間を募り、変革しようとします」この世代の抗議運動が、63年間も支配してきた共産党をそれほど脅かすものになり得るのだろうか。「そう、誰もがそう考えています」と英国で大学院を終えて帰郷し、中国の若者文化を満喫している33歳のおしゃれな青年は言う。「でもそれがいつ起きるかは誰にもわかりません。かつて一度起きましたし、さほど昔ではありません。1989年の天安門抗議運動で決起しましたが、一つには学生が中心となった、汚職や縁故主義、そして共産党若手エリートの傍若無人な振る舞いに対する激しい怒りがあったからです」

< 若者には夢がある >







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