“A Consuming Economy:” For What Purpose?

I have been back to China for about four weeks now and I haven’t written anything other than my trip experience, not because I am lazy or have no time, but because I have received too much striking information to be able to put down anything solid! Any good writing relies on mature thoughts, and my mind has been turning around looking for answers. China is getting crazy, in good and bad ways, and in ways that make me wonder what will happen.
The very first impression I got when I arrived is that China is becoming a commercial country. There are shops everywhere, one after another, following people to wherever there is new development. They are all brand-new, bright, and well decorated with expensive materials, such as marble stone, and selling painfully expensive stuff. The pictures published with the New York Times article In China, Cultivating the Urge to Splurge best show what I am talking about. It seems that China is turning everyone into merchants, a country where, traditionally, merchants have been looked down upon like the Jewish merchant in Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice.”  Yet the more expensive the stuff is, the more lonely the shop becomes.
The most crowded places are the wholesale markets, where a bra costs 12RMB, compared to 500RMB in one of the shiny high-end stores! The price difference is even more appalling between the different brands.  Strangely, with its whole-nation-run commerce, China is regarded as a non-consuming country, because ordinary Chinese families save 20-40% of their income, instead of being like Americans who save almost nothing (nowadays, many of them would be greatly relieved to just be able to keep up with their mortgage payments). The NYT article states that China and the US will help each other out of the economic crisis by turning China into a consuming country; in other words, getting Chinese people’s “big” pennies out of their pockets by speeding up the consumption. But does this make sense? Shouldn’t we think about how we got into this crisis before we try to find the solution? We might be getting out of the woods this time, but what are we going into once we are out?
Another jaw-dropping image is China as a paint-fresh country with weird, illogical phenomena. On one hand, everything is new and fresh: skyscrapers, real estate developments with wonderfully planned stereotyped gardens, waterfalls, wooden bridges and pavilions, even granite stone walk ways. On the other, there are buildings no more than 10 years old that look like slums, with dirty water streaks, broken balconies, weathered wooden bridges, pavilions, bamboo chairs with three legs, water ponds of stagnant stale water. No wonder the overseas Chinese only buy houses that are less than 10 years old! As a condo owner in China myself, I have never seen any legal document such as a “Declaration of Co-Ownership” in the condo management, and in fact there is no condo Management Committee. This means that the owner does not know how their condo is managed and where their condo fees are spent. At the same time, by building solariums on top of their buildings, the owners have no idea that the roofs do not exclusively belong to them. A true story has one developer attempting  to “take” back the already sold out and planted expensive trees.
“Splurge” is the exact word to describe many parts of Chinese cities. It is also the right word to give a sense of what present-day Chinese culture seems like: extraordinarily beautiful on the outside, like the awe inspiring opening ceremony and modern architecture of the Beijing Olympic Games, the splendid fireworks of the 13th Asian Games, or the Shanghai World Expo. But they were built with billions of RMB contributed by the sweat and tears of laborers, and with confiscation of land and properties against which the people had no defense (I believe they were properly arranged some where else far away).  The Water Cube concert hall glittered with gold and platinum, speaking loudly for the crave and craze of splurge in Chinese culture.
Another thing I saw on TV that can be described as weirdly “splurge” is a billionaire giving tons of gold to poor people in a loud voice, with the aim of summoning other rich Chinese enterprises to follow the “splurge” of his actions. Yes, it is great what he is doing, but how come we have only a few rich people like him, and billions more poor people? He may have brought in many rich enterprises to join in the giving, and I am all for great deeds, but I am sure that many eyes might be blinded by the heroic “splurge” of this story. As a wise nation, every individual should have the right and dignity to be well-off by having fair opportunities and I hope that the rich businessman will keep in mind that the glory of his generosity only belongs to God (or to Heaven, according to the Chinese expression)!
For Chinese living overseas for many years, these could be happy changes. Yet, you can feel that behind these changes, some things have not changed. Quite a few Chinese in Montreal complain that the Canadian Medical system is slow and that the French population discriminates against allophones by requesting that they and their kids learn French, while at the same time most of their Chinese countrymen cannot even afford medical care, and many even die right outside their hospitals. Poor people have to bend their knees and grey their souls to provide a basic 9-year education for their children. We see million-RMB-condos all pre-sold, and handicapped people bleakly singing for pennies next to retail display windows. Something has not changed under the marvelous granite paved walkways and behind the gilded concert halls…
One morning, when I was exercising in the neighborhood park, I overheard an interesting conversation between two old women. Both were over sixty-five years old and retired, I assume. The talkative one’s husband had died six years ago, and she was whining that she had been very lonely since her husband passed away, that she could not bother her kids to look after her all the time, and that she was deeply worried that she might die alone without any one knowing. They complained about the bad service in retirement centers, but at the same time they were horrified by the thought that they could end up dead alone at home. I hope you can understand the desperate state of mind of elderly Chinese and the pressure of this issue on their children. Chinese offspring are their parents’ insurance policy Especially for the particularly needy peasants who have no stable income and no insurance of any kind, their children are not only the sole measure to insure their old age, but also to secure their emotional and spiritual dependence, for a cruel and unbelievable sad fact about Chinese people in general is that they have no belief to hold them through their old age when they have much more time that they don’t know what to do with. They have only their children or grand children, those who could very well be driven into spiritual numbness by deliberate avoidance of spirituality, or chase its development blindly just for development’s sake.
We may wonder how men’s bones have become soft as their muscles and brain stiffen, and how the spirit of innovation of our people has been killed! How can an eagle fly when it is chained to the ground, let alone the fact that most are trained to be cows, pulling the heavy cart of history and bearing the responsibility for the life and happiness of their parents? I absolutely feel that China will step onto another level only when she changes into an innovative country. Nevertheless, to the contrary of the wish of Chinese parents and the country in general, 60% of university graduates each year are unable to find jobs, not including the millions of kids who “failed”!” As a mockingly brutal result, instead of helping their elderly parents with their old age problems, they are “eating off” their poor parents year after year!
Earlier this evening, I had a tea party with some of my friends. We talked about where happiness comes from. All of them said that the Chinese are not happy because there is a dictatorship, there is unfairness, there are people starving or dying outside the hospitals; all good reasons for not being happy! One of them said that I had become so naive and simple after years living in Canada. Who says that their comment is not true? I am happy that I am still naive and simple, and mostly I hope they can see and feel the reason why I am a joyous person. I am happy that Canada provides me with a well secured society, the important space for me to think and grow differently, and allows me to have time for myself to learn and feel more about life and its essence: a genuine and grateful attitude towards life, curiosity, a stereo-typed way of thinking, and joy for even the smallest action in life, like a smile for a stranger.
I have been reading Zhuang-Zi, Lao Zi for a long time. China is such a great nation with such an old and marvelous Han culture. It is impossibly surprising that we have let it disappear for so many centuries, since the last Qing Dynasty, and we have fooled ourselves so long. It is very regretful that I had to leave China to hunt for what I could have obtained right here at home, and it is shameful that I had to re-discover my own culture by millions of miles of traveling back and forth. And yet, “traveling tens of thousands of miles should follow reading tens of thousands of books” serves as an excellent excuse for leaving China. Being in Canada for so many years, I have already fallen in love with my new country, with my home land in my heart, wishing true happiness for its people.
Changing China into a country with a consuming economy will not change China profoundly, and it will not help the US to save their economy by selling their technologies to China, or providing services for Chinese, if China does not change from the root. If we criticize China for its fake GDP, then I truly doubt the NYT author’s point. “A consuming economy,” for what? To be a dog in a cage, chasing its own tail? I’d rather see ordinary people with insurance for life and medical care, so that they can stop killing their daughters or continue having more children than food and education for them. I would want them to enjoy free education, rather than seeing the schools chasing profit and introducing unfairness from the cradle. I’d rather see the joyous light in everyone’s eyes, the smile on everyone’s face, respectful and careful attitudes from everyone’s heart!
Sometimes we forget that we do not need much to be healthy, joyous and happy. We can have it anytime and anywhere. I do not believe that we should be defined by the reality, rather that the reality should be defined by how we think. It will be a shame if we do not inherit our culture and improve our minds, changing our way of thinking or perspective. We will be damned if we are only defined by our reality, which may not necessarily be wise at all! “Consuming” should never be the solution to any problem. Changing our fake and superficial lifestyle to one that is modest, balanced, and genuine should be the answer. I do not want to see Chinese become overweight like many Americans are, after years of eating fast foods. I hate to accept the fact that McDonald’s or any other business can get rich by misleading people into a trap of wrong and unhealthy lifestyle, while many other businesses try to sell their diet plans to correct after the fact.
What on earth are we doing when all we need is three small decent meals, and instead we overkill our fine senses by stuffing our stomachs with dozens of spices at the same time? “A Consuming Economy” might serve very well to mislead people into this unhealthy and wasteful life style, while leading the globe into destruction. Can you imagine 16 billion people wasting resources like the Americans do, with two people having three or four big cars!?
Lifestyle, or how we can healthily and happily live our lives, should be the solution to our present global problems. For Americans, for Chinese, or for Europeans, the solution should be the same. We have enough wealth for everyone to live well, if we believe the concept of having equal rights to the share of natural resources, and then use that wealth wisely. Most importantly, we will have to adjust our way of thinking about life itself and find a way to live our lives joyously with a modest consuming speed, of course; we will not be like North Korea, starving and denying our most basic natural needs. I believe this is the true solution, instead of turning the rest of the world into a “Consuming Economy” without conscience, vision, priority, and truly knowing how we can keep balance and how to be happy.
The world economy is just like a giant devil. Who has the wisdom, strength, and power to hold it back for a moment to allow us to re-think and re-design where we are going? Isn’t the current economic crisis the right moment?