Time to take notice of China's new rich
BEIJING -- Visiting the Chinese capital for the first time since 1996 is a startling experience. Nothing you've read can prepare you for the overwhelming physical reality of China's explosive growth, its leap from the bicycle age to the age of Audis, cell phones, and a middle class passion for fashion.
Wander through some of Beijing's many malls and watch crowds of young Chinese chatting on cell phones, roaming in and out of Nine West, Mr. Klein, Givenchy, Rolex watch stores, Starbucks, Pizza Hut, or the local Cineplex, and you realize Americans have paid too little attention to the world's biggest story.
While we've been diverted by events in the Middle East, China has been reinventing itself as a global power. A new generation of urban Chinese has emerged that is as crucial to the future of U.S.-China relations as disputes over textile imports or competition for oil.
The Chinese equivalent of yuppies, they have the name "xiao zi, or "little bourgeois." This generation will shape the Chinese superpower that will emerge in the coming decades.
Its members are addicted to instant messaging; change their cell phones every few months; vacation in Europe, Thailand, Australia and Saipan. Post Sept. 11, it has been more difficult to get American visas, so fewer travel to the United States (although it would be smart politics to roll out the red carpet).
At Beijing's airport bookstores, they buy Jack Welch's "Art of Leadership," Bill Clinton's autobiography; or "The Chinese Century." They can also buy Cosmo Girl, a toned-down version of the American equivalent, which features articles such as "Look Great in Your Jeans" and "Job and Life."
China's new middle class may already equal the population of the United States, so the "xiao zi" probably number in the tens of millions. They are too young to have memories of the 1989 Chinese government slaughter of students demonstrating for democracy in Tiananmen Square. Many are quite nationalistic, but their hostility seems directed at Japan more than at the United States.
They appear less interested in Chinese political reforms than in their economic futures. Here's how Sijia Duan, a vivacious student at Peking University's School of International Studies, put it: "I'm concerned about finding a job, and I don't care much what happens in the U.S. or outside. I like Kentucky Fried Chicken, going to bars, using MSN to chat with foreign friends, and going out with handsome guys, but I have to study first. Chinese students are the future of China, and we are so hardworking compared to U.S. students."
On Sunday I sat in a crowded, traditional Chinese restaurant with a group of twentysomethings: Jie, an account manager at a large Western advertising agency; her husband Yeu, the manager of one of Beijing's largest supermarkets; Lulu, a business development manager at a Chinese Internet portal; and Yuan, a student of international relations.
"When my father was 30, he couldn't imagine owning a car or an apartment or going abroad," Jie said. When she was a child, her whole family lived in one tiny room, assigned to her father by his state-owned employer; that was the way everyone got housing. Jie and Yeu are now pushing 30; they own a two-bedroom flat, a vacation home, and two cars and can afford to travel overseas.
"Most people don't want to be involved in politics," Yeu said. "It seems far away. There are so many opportunities in China."
Jie added: "We are looking at the government, what it can do for the Chinese people."
Here, indeed, is the key. The "xiao zi" are not rebels; they are optimistic about China's future. But they know China still has huge problems, that there is a dangerous gap between urban well-to-do and the rural poor. They know China's headlong growth carries risks, and that they must compete in a market economy. Yuan worried about getting a good job.
As China moves forward, this generation, which never suffered like their parents, will expect the government to be more accountable, to open up even further to the world. As they travel and experience other countries' systems, they may demand that the Party move faster toward rule of law and government accountability.
X Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.