Mainland Malaise

Book cover
The End of the Chinese Dreamby By Gerard LemosYale University Press. 320p $38

Gerard Lemos, a former visiting professor in China from the United Kingdom, paints a disturbing picture of the failure of China’s extraordinary economic growth to benefit hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens. After conducting a remarkable survey in China, Lemos links the economic problems and fears of ordinary Chinese to the policies of China’s authoritarian leadership, both local and national. Although most of Lemos’s research occurs in Chongqing, where the recently deposed Politburo member Bo Xilai was party secretary, the problems he describes exist throughout China.

In The End of the Chinese Dream: Why Chinese People Fear the Future, Lemos concludes that “the People’s Republic of China is now run by the wealthy for the benefit of the wealthy.” Hundreds of millions of ordinary Chinese are the losers. They are “deeply insecure about themselves and their future” he writes, just when the rest of the world has become “star-struck by the apparent prospect of China’s imminent glory.”


The author, a social policy expert, was a professor at Chongqing Technical University from 2006 to 2010. He was interested in whether policies to support people through the transformation to a market economy were working. After conducting a survey of more than 2,500 Chinese citizens in Chongqing and Beijing, he concluded they were not. On paper, he asked four questions: Who are you? What event changed your life? What is your biggest worry? What do you wish for? He designed the survey in a creative, innocuous way in order to get the necessary permission from officials.

Those surveyed worried about finding jobs, keeping their jobs, getting sick, affording medical treatment, paying for their children’s education and having enough to live on in their old age. These modest ambitions, Lemos writes, “are the true Chinese dream,” but for millions “that short-lived dream has died.”

Still, China has succeeded in drastically reducing poverty, from about 85 percent in 1985 to 16 percent in 2005. But hundreds of millions still cannot find enough money to pay for the services that the government provided until about 1980.

Lemos quotes many of those he surveyed. A 42-year-old man from Chongqing, for example, wrote: “[My greatest worry is] I couldn’t find a job and couldn’t afford to go to hospital and I’m also worrying about my child’s education fee. [I wish] to find a job to support my child’s education and to have health insurance.”

Such concerns are strikingly similar to those of Americans. But the “safety nets” that exist in the West—unemployment insurance, pensions, workers’ compensation—are extremely stingy in China, mere tokens. Free health care no longer exists for most Chinese citizens.

During the 1990s, I and other foreign correspondents in China wrote about the lack of safety nets. But our stories were anecdotal, not based on surveys. Now, 20 years later, hundreds of millions of Chinese still have reason to be anxious. I saw the lack of safety nets again a few years ago when I interviewed factory workers in China who had developed fatal illnesses or suffered limb amputations because of factory work. Although China has worker protection laws, they were not enforced. Workers were not warned that the chemicals they used or metals they breathed could kill them. Those who developed fatal silicosis or cadmium poisoning were given paltry amounts of money as compensation.

The Chinese government, Lemos argues, should attempt to create a national safety net. It should also provide social services.

Instead, Chinese must provide their own safety nets. One of Lemos’s more interesting insights is that the large amount of income saved by Chinese is not only the result of Chinese habits and culture, as is sometimes argued. The savings are essential in the attempt to provide health care, education and stability during old age or joblessness.

In China, much of the money lent by banks for real estate and construction comes from ordinary deposits by ordinary Chinese citizens. “So there is no incentive for the Communist party to change the model and provide social services,” Lemos writes.

Lemos does not mention the estimated billions of dollars that the Chinese government has invested overseas during the last decade, especially throughout Africa. The investments have been for mining and the acquisition of rights to the world’s rare earth elements; meanwhile Chinese citizens worry about joblessness or paying for basic health care, education and retirement. In some ways the portrait Lemos paints of China has striking similarities to the current snapshot of the United States, where trillions of dollars have been spent overseas—for fighting wars—while citizens grapple with the lack of medical insurance and joblessness, which is at least partially caused by millions of our jobs going to China.

Lemos argues that democracy is not necessary for the Chinese government to provide its citizens with a better quality of life. Yet it is hard to imagine, from Lemos’s portrait of the one-party government, that there will be significant improvements for ordinary citizens any time soon.

Where, then, is hope for the ordinary Chinese citizen? Lemos believes that there may be a national uprising in China. “It has happened unexpectedly in so many countries, why should China’s citizens be different?” They are different, I would argue, because of China’s police state, which includes cameras in cities (and some homes) and an extensive network of Internet surveillance, cellphone surveillance and an army of plain clothes citizens paid to spy on fellow citizens and foreigners. This year’s budget for the domestic security apparatus was $111 billion, $5 billion more than the budget for the military. If China spent less money on surveillance, it might have more money for safety nets for its citizens. And then it might need less surveillance. Lemos does not make this particular argument, but it seems perhaps another piece of the picture.

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