News & Current Affairs

July 19, 2009

Sink or swim in modern China

Sink or swim in modern China

Chris Hogg heads to the small Chinese village of Zhushanxia, 200km from Shanghai, to see how lives have been shaped by the economy under communist rule, the recession and the country’s economic recovery.

A farmer sells vegetables at a wholesale market on March 22, 2005 in Hefei of Anhui Province, China

China’s economic roller-coaster has divided communities and villages into those who have sunk financially, and those who managed to swim

Huang Jiao Ling lives at the end of a long dusty road.

Mobile phone numbers are daubed all over the walls of her home and those of her neighbours.

It is like a strange kind of mathematical graffiti, but the numbers are, in fact, advertisements for people offering goods and services.

In modern China, it seems everyone has something to sell.

Huang Jiao Ling, too, is an entrepreneur. She is in her 50s, but she looks younger.

In her front garden, where others might have planted vegetables, she has built a small workshop.

Inside, the walls are unfinished and the floor uneven, but there is just about enough room for a work-bench and a handful of basic machine tools.

Churning out widgets

On the floor are cardboard boxes filled with piles of tiny metal widgets.

They are simple to make – her husband sits at the bench turning them out rapidly by hand.

Fruit seller in China

Many Chinese run their own small businesses in order to get ahead

A few feet away, his bicycle-taxi is parked just inside the front door of the house.

The machine work is a lot less tiring than pedalling passengers around, but he still keeps the bike.

It is useful, he says, to supplement their income in leaner times.

The Huangs sell the boxes of widgets to the factory where Huang Jiao Ling has a full-time job.

For a while this year they had to shut the workshop as demand dropped, but now the machines are humming again.

They have two children, because if you live in the country and your first child is a girl, you are allowed to have another one.

The girls go to very good schools, the best Huang Jiao Ling can afford.

She spends more than half her income on school fees.

“We have to think of their future,” she tells me.

“It’s a Chinese tradition. Parents always think of their children, and when the parents get old, their children will look after them. It’s the same for every generation.”

Yu Feng Guo is Huang Jiao Ling’s brother-in-law.

She is doing well for herself in China’s new modern market economy, but he has been left behind.

He used to work in a state-owned brick factory.

Different lifestyles

When the economic reforms began 30 years ago he watched as some of his co-workers left their jobs to start up their own small businesses, many of them selling prawns or fish by the side of the road.

He decided to do what he thought was the right thing, what the communist party would expect of a loyal worker in a state-owned enterprise – he stayed.

Eventually, the brick factory went bust and he was out of a job.

Rice paddy field

Agriculture provides an income for many rural Chinese

Now, dressed in a shabby khaki jacket, he works as a security guard in an open-air food market.

Those early entrepreneurs who had left his factory to try their luck in the fledgling market economy are now much richer than him and to his family this seems unfair.

“Thirty years ago everyone in the village was poor,” his son tells me.

“Now the difference in lifestyle between the rich and the poor in our village is huge.”

There is an implicit bargain in modern Chinese society between the leaders and the led.

Beijing tells its people “we will give you opportunities” – to earn more, to enjoy a better standard of living than your parents did.

But you, in return, will behave yourself.

Back on track

In Zhushanxia village quite a few cars can be seen bumping along past the fields, something you would not have seen 30 years ago.

If you have got used to having more, whether it’s a car, or a bigger house, or a more expensive school for your child, you have more to lose when times get tough.

That is why it is so important for the government to get the economy back on track.

When it first faltered, when factories started laying off workers, there was a risk that they would start to feel the government was no longer keeping to its side of the deal, so why should they?

So in Beijing, of course, there will be relief that a recovery appears to be under way.

But the next challenge for the government will be to do more to try to ensure that everyone shares the benefits.

Huang Jiao Ling is happy her workshop is busy again, but still nervous about the future.

So she, like most other Chinese, is saving as much of her income as she can.

Her brother-in-law Yu Feng Guo, has no idea how he will be able to save enough to secure a state pension on his meagre wages from his unstable job.

He and others like him will be looking to their leaders for reassurance that they will be cared for as they approach old age.

But that will costly and complicated. Fixing the economy may prove to have been the easy part.

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August 28, 2008

For those too young to remember the Cold War…

For those too young to remember the Cold War…

WarGames

Before the days of flat screen monitors… and Perestroika

The conflict in Georgia has awoken fears of a new Cold War between Russia and its allies and the West, nearly 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. But will the animosity come back to haunt Western imaginations as it once did?

“We share the same biology,
regardless of ideology.
Believe me when I say to you,
I hope the Russians love their children too”

That couplet might be a mere piece of lyrical doggerel to any listener born after 9 November 1989, but when Sting released the single Russians in 1985, it came out of a deep mine of anxiety in the West about the course of the Cold War.

Sting

A good period in which to make profound statements…

For nearly five decades, the Cold War provided a rich seam running right through popular culture in the West, throwing out films, music, novels and even computer games that carried the fears, conscious and subconscious, of millions.

In the 1950s, science fiction movies were often allegories about different aspects of Cold War politics. Invasion of the Body-Snatchers was interpreted as a reference to McCarthy-era paranoia, Invaders from Mars as a parable of communist infiltration, and the Day the Earth Stood Still as a simple fantasy that some higher supernatural power would come to try and sort everything out.

After the world reached the brink of war during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, there was another wave of Cold War-inspired fiction, with Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove perhaps the most notable example.

With the detente of the 1970s the Cold War thread became less noticeable, but with worsening relations in the early 1980s, both sides of the Atlantic were suddenly replete with fictional Cold War dystopian scenarios.

On the British side people were treated to the agonisingly poignant graphic novel When the Wind Blows by Raymond Briggs and its film adaptation, as well as 1984’s Threads, about the terrifying aftermath of a nuclear strike. On the other side of the Atlantic, there were the mini-series Amerika and World War III, and the gruesome The Day After with its vivid montages of men, women, children and even horses being vaporized.

Frankie Goes to Hollywood

…and ripe for sensational scare-mongering

On the silver screen WarGames explored the issue of computer hacking against a background of mutually assured destruction , while Red Dawn took the usual brat pack characters complete with preppy letterman jackets, and armed them with AK-47s to fight a Soviet invasion of the US. Popular attitudes towards the Eastern Bloc were shaped by movies like Rocky IV, where the drug cheat Ivan Drago was emblematic of suspicions held against Soviet athletes.

As well as Sting’s Russians, Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s chart-topper Two Tribes provided a musical accompaniment to the era. It seems strange to discuss now what was, even then, viewed as often laughable ephemera, but the course of popular culture reflected deep-seated fears, particularly significant among those too young to temper their concerns with a grasp of the political context.

Almost as soon as it had intensified, the Cold War quickly ebbed away, and by the end of the 1989, with the Berlin Wall coming down and relations defrosting across the whole of eastern Europe, it suddenly became a bit silly to pick the Soviet state as baddies.

Hollywood had to find new protagonists for a new zeitgeist, and fast.

Bond sabbatical

While rarely casting Russia itself as the main enemy in a storyline, and indeed often featuring a sympathetic KGB general, the James Bond franchise was unmistakably driven by Cold War themes of espionage and fear of weapons technology. It was inevitably affected, says film critic James King.

It was a competition to be modern – consumer society was used as a bulwark against communism
Jane Pavitt

“Bond went into limbo for seven years, for many reasons, but one was that it didn’t feel relevant any more.

“The first film I remember that actually caught up was True Lies. When that came out it was almost a James Bond film and it had a new Hollywood enemy, which was an Arab – this was the new thing.”

Post 9/11 there has been a glut of movies either tackling the threat of terrorism, attacking the politics of the war on terror and Guantanamo Bay, as well as a host of television programmes that have explored the fall-out for Muslim communities on both sides of the Atlantic. A poster for the current movie Shoot on Sight – with its tag line “Is it a crime to be a Muslim?” – is typical.

In the space between the end of the Cold War and Islamist terrorism entering the mainstream mindset as the main threat to the West, movie producers did their best to come up with convincing action movie baddies.

Having been conceived long before the fall of the wall, the Hunt for Red October, an adaptation of Tom Clancy’s 1984 novel, still performed well at the box office in 1990. But in projects conceived after the end of Cold War hostilities, the baddies are very often neo-nationalists or rebels trying to destabilise a friendly Russia (Crimson Tide and Air Force One) or are avaricious terrorists and gangsters of other nationalities (Die Hard).

Cold War the Sequel

The effect of the end of the Cold War on secret services and military personnel came to be a major theme. John Le Carre was one of those spy novel authors who made the transition smoothly. The Russia House marked the last of his novels released during the Cold War, the next three deal with the effect of the thaw on intelligence operatives, while the subsequent four, including the Tailor of Panama and the Constant Gardener are not directly related to the Cold War. But Hodder and Stoughton, his publisher, maintain sales of the Cold War novels were unaffected by the events of 1989.

Threads

Threads – not your average prime-time BBC drama

King is sceptical about whether current Cold War fears will quickly feed back into popular culture.

“Films take a while to get on the screen – I don’t think we will see anything for a year.”

Film producers and publishers may also feel that with the long lead times, tensions could be defused by the time anything gets to market.

They are returning to Cold War classics but not necessarily because of modern fears over relations between the West and Russia. WarGames was recently remade as a straight-to-DVD release although terrorism underpinned the story rather than a renewed Cold War. It has also been recently reported that Red Dawn is to be remade, although the exact plot is unclear.

But as well as those cultural products directly referencing or making allusions to the Cold War, the conflict also provided the backdrop to massive shifts and vigorous battles in everything from product design and modern art to fashion, says Jane Pavitt, curator of the Cold War Modern exhibition opening next month at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

“It was a competition to be modern,” says Pavitt. “Consumer society was used as a bulwark against communism in Europe in the 1950s. That’s why fashion and kitchen goods can be seen as part of this.”

For those who were too young to remember the Berlin Wall coming down, or were born afterwards, the unique fears of the Cold War era, and the popular culture they steered, may be hard to appreciate.

But for anyone over the age of 25 in the West, they remain a deeply significant part of our psyche.


Add your comments on this story.

What about Soviet / Eastern Bloc popular culture during the cold war – was it also full of espionage dramas and ‘what if’ nuclear bomb scenarios? As someone old enough to remember it from a British perspective, I realise I have no idea at all how it was perceived and represented in media the other side of the Iron Curtain. I’m sure there is a level of propaganda and also aware that creativity was somewhat stifled, but is there a parallel strand of writing/drama/film-making that we’re all ignorant of over here?
WorldGirl, Enfield, UK

I have grown up at the other side of the Iron Curtain and can assure you: the fear that the Cold War would spiral out of control was just as real on our side, only that we expected the West to make the first move. This was reflected in our popular culture in a similar way as was quoted in the article. I used to think: perhaps both sides are just too afraid of each other, perhaps such fears could be calmed by assuring each other that “we” would not make the first move. However, my views have changed a bit over the years. Having seen how readily the West is prepared to enter into a war (Yugoslavia, twice in Iraq, Afghanistan) and how openly it encroaches on Russia’s borders by supporting various colour-coded revolutions, I am beginning to wonder who was indeed the more aggressive side. For anyone getting into a rage about this posting: just for one moment, try to forget our view that we are always right and that our view on democracy justifies any means to spread it around the world. Try to be unbiased and then read again what I said.
Holger Laux, Bristol, UK

It’s interesting, and perhaps significant, that in times of national perceived potential threat from outside, so much creativity happens. I remember vividly the tension of the 1980s, the big changes in the UK and around the world. In some ways, it was an exciting time because every new day could bring danger. Is that what we humans survive on and does it draw us together?
Krystyna, Sedgley

In the mid 1980’s I can remember being in a 6th form who generally agreed that they would not live to be 30 because nuclear war was both imminent and inevitable. A strange mix of living a normal life but with the constant knowledge of impending disaster. This is probably why I felt so uneasy with the worsening relationship between Russia and the West. The world is, in my opinion, much less stable than it was in the 80s and the politicians are much more dangerous and paranoid than Maggie/Ronnie/Andropov/Chernenko.
John Ferris, Coventry, UK

I’m 27 and can just about remember the Berlin Wall coming down, though I can’t say I remember much more about the cold war. I’d raise your threshold to at least 30!
James, London

How true. I was only nine years old when they installed an air raid siren to the roof of our school. There were lots of discussions about what we would do with our last three minutes of life before the bombs arrived. It sounds trivial now but at the time we were convinced it would happen.
Dawn, Redhill

Reading the above it confirms my gut feeling that it is the Media that stir up scenarios causing more trouble than most just by publishing half of the story and twisting the facts. Even the BBC has succumbed to the drum of the gutter press by allowing the papers to show headlines on some of their programmes such as Breakfast, the BBC does not need to give the like of these people air time they have enough journalists to concoct their own stories, so why of why do they (BBC) despoil their standards with drivel?
Robert, Liverpool

I was born in 1985 so missed the hysteria, but we were subjected to ‘Threads’ in school. I didn’t sleep for weeks and when I did I dreamt of that cat on fire and the melting milk bottles! Haven’t been to Sheffield since!!
Martin Doyle, St Albans

Threads was an excellent – and terrifying – story, and was also the first ‘post-holocaust drama’ to incorporate the concept of the nuclear winter, which had only recently been realised. And it was more than just a story: it included occasional subtitles to spell out what would be happening. It’s hardly likely to get repeated (and would in all likelihood be out of date with its figures), but as an illustration of why not to play with nuclear weapons it was second to none.
Ruaraidh Gillies, Wirral, UK

Please stop doing this. Drumming up panic when there is no need. Even Russia has said they don’t want another cold war. There is NO crisis, just sabre rattling as always.
Rich, UK

Yes a large influence on Culture of the 80’s when I grew up. I went into the RAF and ended up at Greenham Common on the other side from the peace camp. I have still have a Cold War playlist on my iPod with tracks like ‘Two Tribes’, ‘Mad World’ and ’19’. Recent Computer games like Operation Flashpoint also hark back to the Cold War 80s. Are we going into a Second Cold War. Yes and there is nothing the West can do.
Simon CS, Farnham, Surrey, UK

The Cold War was fun and inspired some great films.
Matt, Philadelphia USA

Let’s hope that we don’t go back to the scare-mongering of the early eighties. For once I would like to think that today’s youngsters are a bit de-sensitised to the whole ‘we’re all going to die’ thoughts portrayed back then. I myself started digging out a bunker at the age of seven for our family to shelter in. When I was discovered I claimed it was a copy of Percy Thrower’s Blue Peter sunken garden!!!
Jenny, Wolves

I remember being absolutely terrified of nuclear war growing up. It was an all too real possibility. The intro to “Two Tribes” used to frighten me, and “Threads” is just as disturbing to watch now as it ever was. We also had the misfortune to live nine miles from the RAF/US Navy bases and oil refineries making us a prime target. When the Air Force did their low-flying exercises in the middle of the night, I’d lie awake waiting for a bomb blast to follow. That said, I think the idea of being nuked at any moment really beefed up Western popular culture at the time.
Mandi, Cardiff, Wales

They don’t need to drop the bomb. Russia has between 1/4 and 1/3 of the world’s oil and natural gas.

All they have to do is turn the taps off.
Philip Le Roux, Aldershot HANTS UK

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