why I’m not overly worried

February 1st, 2009

No, I’m not really worried right now. There’s a lot of things going on in the world, many of which are bad, but I’m not concerned- not concerned in that I’m not expecting Armageddon to wake me up at dawn tomorrow, I mean.

And what sparked this off was this post at Absurdity, Allegory and China. Something really irked me about it, and looking back and rereading I may well have misread or read into it more than what was there, but nevermind, I reacted the way I did and it got me pondering.

Which shows two things:

  1. Rereading is always important, especially when what you read provokes a strong reaction; and
  2. Anything that gets you pondering, whether you agree or disagree, whether it’s right or wrong, is good. The key is that you really do ponder. Reacting is not pondering.

Anyways, many people have commented on Maureen Fan’s recent article on the “University Graduate Village Official” programme in the Washington Post, China’s Solution for Unemployed College Grads, State Jobs in the Boonies, but somehow I just can’t see it as news. Well, sure, there’s extra impetus being injected into the programme thanks to the economic crisis, but even so, the programme has been running for what? 2 years now? and is not new. That it is being boosted as one response to the state of the economy is no surprise.

Anyway, looking through that report, I’m not surprised. First of all, because it drags in the old, lazy, Western media tricks. Reference to events in Beijing 20 years ago, for example. That’s a bit rich. Really, the urban economy is not in the state it was in 1989, and it’s the rural areas, not the now affluent cities, that are hard up. And besides, no well-loved top-level official has yet passed away- isn’t that the traditional starting point for such things? And, of course, the obligatory references to the “sending down” of the 60s. Sure, that is presented as a contrast, but is it helpful? Does it contribute to anybody’s understanding of the issue at hand? Wouldn’t a comparison to the barefoot doctors be a little more appropriate? I mean, the current programme is not an attempt to reeducate soft, spoiled urban youth (although they sure as shit could use it), but an attempt to both relieve employment pressure in the cities and boost the quality of administration in rural areas by getting better educated people out where they’re sorely needed.

But the article is not too bad. It does raise some very real problems with the programme, one being the major disconnect between the graduates and the older village officials. For example:

Many of the students are bored and uninterested in remaining in their villages, graduates and some local officials said. Not only are they not trained for rural work but they are not trusted by village leaders.

Well, there’s no surprise. After all, many participating graduates have ulterior motives and see this as a necessary step onto something bigger, brighter and better. Fair enough, in its way, but not terribly helpful for improving the quality of rural administration. And it’s no surprise that village leaders would not trust new graduates. First up, my own parents in law don’t trust me with much farmwork, because I simply don’t know what I’m doing up there. That’s just the way it is. I’m a city boy, an intellectual, and a teacher, they’re farmers. They can’t teach English, and I can’t farm. But I can also see the possibility of a certain amount of resentment of these affluent, confident young people who have enjoyed possibilities not open to older people in the countryside:

Village committee chiefs, meanwhile, are proud and believe the condition of the village needs no further improvement.

(obviously, I’m reading a lot more into that quotation)

Secondly, everybody who has worked in a Chinese university is familiar with the phenomenon of students with completely unrealistic expectations- and looking back, I’m sure this phenomenon is by no means unique to China:

“At first, I thought I would have the power to suggest or advise the director of the village. But in reality, you cannot do what you want,” Ye said. “The party secretary is the one who decides things. We are like servants without any power.”

Terribly sorry, but I’d be very reluctant to take the advice of any new graduate, regardless of where they graduated from. Study is one thing, experience is necessary to round it out:

Because college graduates lack real work experience, villagers often don’t trust their judgment, Song said.

Exactly.

But the article does end on a brighter note:

In poorer areas, officials seem more welcoming of the graduates. In Shanxi province’s Jishan county, village director Zhao Jianguang promises that graduates will be given some decision-making authority.

“Graduates can help change our way of thinking because they’re more resourceful about searching for information,” said Zhao, director of Xuecun village. “Farmers only learn about policies from local officials, but students can search the Internet and use it to help publicize our village’s products. Right now, we don’t even have an Internet connection.”

Again, exactly. See, the graduates do desperately lack the experience and knowledge of rural affairs of the villagers and older officials, but they do have youth and fresh ideas to contribute.

Now, back to Absurdity, Allegory and China. Like I said, something really irked me about that post, and I think it was the seemingly almost insistent negativity:

There’s a whiff of potential disaster to this ill-advised “boonies” solution. I thought this was why we study history, why we try to learn from past mistakes.

Clearly the programme in question is far from perfect, but isn’t this a little over the top? I mean, does this need to end in disaster? Is sending graduates into the countryside necessarily fanning any flames?

And do we really need vague, not obviously relevant references to recent history?

The country folks have had to carry the city folks a time or two in the not-so-distant past, and I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that it didn’t work out that well back then.

Now, just what is that about? Barefoot doctors? Somehow I don’t think so…. The Great Leap Forward? But how was that country folks carrying city folks? Cultural Revolution? Country folks were in top, then. The first phase of reform and opening up? Again, that began in the countryside, and the countryside was better off than the cities right up until the early 90s, wasn’t it? The wealthy urban/poor rural split is a Jiang phenomenon.

Well, first of all, sure, there is a major cultural disconnect between urban and rural China. And yes, there is misunderstanding, distrust, condescension and resentment. My own wife has said, on numerous occasions she has encountered urban prejudice against rural folks, words to the effect of “Well, fuck ’em, we’ll just stop selling our food to the cities, keep it all for ourselves. Let’s see what these city people do then, eh?”

But Fan’s article ends on a positive note, with an older village official acknowledging the advantages young graduates can bring to the countryside, so surely the success or failure of this programme depends as much on individual attitudes- attitudes of both village officials and graduates- as on any urban/rural divide?

But of course, the current state of the economy is throwing urban employment prospects for rural labour all out of whack. Factories are closing. Wages are going unpaid. There are reports of large numbers of migrant workers planning to stay in their villages after Spring Festival, or still undecided whether they’ll return to the cities. For years now, even with the previously booming economy, underemployment has been one of the countryside’s more pressing problems. The Devil makes work for idle hands, and I’m sure he’s rubbing his own hands with extra glee looking around rural China right now. And sure, dumping a lot of spoiled, inexperienced unexperienced city kids in there can’t help.

But:

Whence the assumption that all that surplus rural labour will stay in the villages?

Sure, factories are closing, cutting off many employment opportunities. And I would not be surprised to see a downturn in real estate, shutting down many construction jobs. But I do see many huge opportunities for China in this bad economy, and the tea leaves I’m reading suggest the government is going to seize those opportunities.

One thing is infrastructure. The focus on the coast in the first 20-odd years of reform and opening up is not the only reason the coast is more developed than the interior. There’s also infrastructure, as in, China still does not have the infrastructure to efficiently move goods from the interior to the coast (or vice versa). The Spring Festival crush on trains and long-distance buses shows this quite dramatically- it’s not just ticket scalpers, it’s that as well developed as China’s railway and highway systems are (and even back in ’99 when I first washed up on these shores China’s railway network was a gazillion years ahead of New Zealand’s), there’s still a long way to go until they can fully meet China’s needs.

Another is energy. China is still far too reliant on dirty, filthy coal, and the government is well aware of this- has been for years, now. And for years, China has been talking up renewable energy and new energy. I think it’s fair to say most of China, as in the entire western half and the entire northern half of the country, has a huge and almost totally untapped wealth of potential solar energy. Also, many areas of China, for example, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, and Gansu’s Hexi Corridor, have a wealth of potential wind energy. And am I the only one to notice what should translate into awesome geothermal prospects in many parts of the country (and I note certain buildings on my university campus are heated geothermally)? Throw into the mix the old favourites, hydro and nuclear….

And there’s this recently-announced reform of the healthcare system.

And, of course, rural development in a more general, comprehensive sense.

Now, all those people not working in closed down factories translates into a large pool of available labour.

In other words, although I do see a temporary spike in rural under- and unemployment, and I do see social and economic trouble ahead, I also see the government pulling a Keynes and working proactively to develop rural areas, increase access to healthcare and education, and build much-needed infrastructure. I do see the government working to reduce the number of idle hands for whom the Devil can make work.

After all, is a recession not a great time to build up all that infrastructure China will need when the economy rebounds?

And not only that, but the government has been making very loud noises about increasing the domestic consumption that would reduce China’s dependence on exports. There has been, for example, noise about encouraging the real estate and car industries. Now, I think the only thing real estate needs to be encouraged towards is building quality housing at reasonable prices, not the overpriced shit that has been sprouting the last few years, but whatever. On the bright side, the noise I’ve been hearing about cars suggests (finally) a push toward smaller, more efficient, less polluting vehicles, and I can’t see much wrong with that.

So yeah, I see interesting, difficult and even troublesome times ahead, but I’m reasonably confident that, in China at least, things are going to be alright.

2 Responses to “why I’m not overly worried”

  1. Jim G. Says:

    I’m glad that you feel the way you do, but I don’t share the same optimism. While I wouldn’t describe my views as “insistent negativity,” I also don’t see the current situation as either half-full or half empty, although I do see it as precariously teetering in the crucial middle, as I also see the US at this time. The difference is that I believe that the US political system is capable of crucial adjustments. (Thankfully, we are witnessing the US’ attempt at a critical political correction after an eight-year, near-catastrophic drunken stumble along the edge of the cliff.) The Chinese system, which is still based on fiat, is one that is more problematic. Proclamations from the central authority don’t necessarily translate well out to the mighty fringes, where local filters and power bases have self-interested ways of interpreting and implementing what amount to imperial declarations: good ideas sound well and good on paper, but how they play out over the hill is usually something else altogether. (Why is there such a large domestically focused army?) At least that’s what history has told me, going back as far as one can possibly go into the deep 5,000 year haze. Think Qin. Think Sui. Both short-lived and chaotic “fixes” between periods of utter fragmentation and the very hyped glory days of the Han and Tang dynasties. Perhaps a bit of a long view here, but that’s the way I tend to look at things. I look at the present more like an interim (or interregnum), though I have no clue what’s on the other side. Pyongyang with food? Well I hope more than that, though that has sometimes been the chosen option.

    I think it’s clear that adjustments need to happen, but these guys haven’t yet proven that they are capable of making the real positive ones necessary to bring this thing under responsible control. (The keyword here is ‘responsible.’) Until that happens I’m not willing to lean in an optimistic direction. It’s just the way I read the leaves. And you read them a little differently. And I hope you’re right, but I’m holding onto my money.

  2. wangbo Says:

    Jim, thanks for the excellent comment. Somehow I picked up a tone of “insistent negativity” in your post, and clearly that was a misinterpretation on my part. Sorry.

    Anyway, you raise many good points. My only disagreement is that I also see the potential for self-correction in the Chinese system, and I would say the post-Mao era was a series of self-corrections followed by incorrections followed by self-corrections.

    But call me a cautious optimist. I see all the same potential for disaster as you do. I hope I’m right, but I’d advise you to keep holding onto your money. None of us knows the way this thing’s going to go.