China has officially surpassed Japan to become the world’s second largest economy. The reporting has been as predictable as the story itself, mostly smitten prognostications of a seemingly unstoppable ascent or bitter inferences to inevitable overheating.
The BBC’s article “China could rue hasty dash for growth” did a decent job of spanning the spectrum of personal reactions. It helped that the article was written in Wuhan, a post-apocalyptic wasteland of a metropolis. I visited Wuhan a few years back, and it emits a different vibe than its big brothers to the East. Shanghai and Beijing are the window dressing to Wuhan’s back-of-the-shop realities, and that distinction was evident in the comments of those interviewed for the story.
The article talks about one professor’s concerns over local cadres’ overeager pursuit of “short term easy ‘wins’” to boost growth. This heedless developmental policy reminded me of a conversation with my landlord when I first moved to Shanghai.
Apartments in Shanghai– in all of China, Taiwan, and much of Asia for that matter– are simple slab concrete boxes. The faster and cheaper the building can be finished, the faster the owners can start making some money. It’s been that way since the 1970s, when urbanization first jolted demand for immediate housing.
The results are hollow, inefficient homes. Single-pane windows. No insulation. Shabby paint jobs. Sloppy tile. Poor plumbing. In Shanghai, I had the unfortunate luck of living on the 7th floor while the 1st was being renovated. The noise reverberated through the building so effortlessly that I could have sworn the guys were standing on my bed hammering nails in my own wall.
But even if you escape a nearby school, busy street, or construction project, it doesn’t guarantee a pleasant night’s rest. It’s a constant source of entertainment and annoyance to anyone who has lived in this part of the world that apartments miraculously tend to be colder inside during the winter and hotter during the summer.
When I finally got around to asking my landlord why they didn’t invest those few extra dollars to make the building more sustainable, she replied, “It doesn’t matter. In five years, we’ll tear this building down and build something we can rent for more.”
This was the same women who bought teak furniture for the entire house — sofa, chairs, tables — because it holds up and is believed to be a more valuable hand-me-down. Go figure. (NOTE: This theory has some legs, since rarely did my housemates or I sit on the excruciatingly uncomfortable Medieval creations.)
The BBC article also features a young businessman, Simon Liu. I’ve probably met a million carbon copies of this character over my years in China,
To him, the local economy looks in decent shape… It helps, of course, that he has already bought a house, so he benefits from the rocketing prices for real estate here as the city develops… He and his friends have just one topic of conversation at the moment: how to help each other make more money.
A couple of things that the average reader might not take away from this quote: First, I’d be willing to wager a year’s salary Liu didn’t buy his apartment. Ok, that’s another thing. It’s an apartment, not a house. There are probably less actual “houses” in China than there are Chinese living in Greenland. Regardless, Liu didn’t buy his house, his parents did. They likely got a good spot coming out of the centralized government years, either parlayed that into a better investment or have lived there ever since, saving a boatload of money in the process.
This is how it works in China. The parents got in on the ground floor. They’ve been saving while everyone lives at home, sometimes well into their 30s, and then they gift a child an apartment. And this is nothing if not essential to the white-collar yuppie.
One of my good friends at the television channel in Shanghai used to tell me repeatedly how he needed his parents to “finally” (he was 23) buy him an apartment so that he could find a girlfriend and get married. It was his “Get of the House Free” card, so to speak. And eventually, his parents bought him that new apartment and a brand new car to boot. Keep in mind, his salary was likely around USD$700 per month– a great job.
Simon should be just as stoked to own his apartment. It means he is one step closer to being married, and then by Chinese definition, a successful adult. His infatuation with becoming rich comes as no surprise. He’s probably making about USD$250 each month right now, a common starting salary for a young university grad and just a shade over what an uneducated migrant worker earns. He realizes the lifestyle he leads is unsustainable without parental coffers.
And this isn’t to say he has a bad job or doesn’t have the potential to earn more in the near future. But there is a definite ceiling for The Employee. I knew a friend who worked for Citibank in Shanghai, a highly desirable, top-shelf multinational job. He had an MBA from a respected university in England. His salary? USD$1000 per month.
There are still a lot more bicycles than Bentleys in China.