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Driven to Be Made in China

The young have things their parents only dreamed of. But there's a lot of hand-wringing. They want wealth, and they want it now.

Times Staff Writer

July 11, 2005

BEIJING — Across Chinese society, signs of stress and restless energy are everywhere.

Jiaolu, or anxiety, a new buzzword, produces nearly a million hits on Google China. A recent survey by the newspaper China Youth Daily found that 66% of young people considered themselves under heavy pressure and fewer than 1% felt stress-free.

Youngsters have little time for anything but class and homework, and as jiaolu builds, teen suicide rates rise. "Dear parents, I can hardly express my gratitude for bringing me up," read a note left by Tian Tian, a 12-year-old girl in the northern province of Shanxi. "But I feel under such pressure. There is too much homework for me. I have no choice but to die."

Late last year, the southern city of Shenzhen opened the mainland's first hotline for students feeling left behind, in a nation where parents often sit in on their children's intense college prep classes to urge them on. "Help for Underachievers Just a Phone Call Away," blared a headline about the new service, first detailed in the Guangzhou Daily.

When Shanghai-based Want Want Co. ran an ad recently with the tag line "If you eat this cracker, you'll get rich," demand for the snacks skyrocketed until government watchdogs pulled the plug. Their move followed complaints by consumers worried that turning down a Want Want might undercut their shot at wealth.

Young urban Chinese enjoy a lifestyle their parents only dreamed of. Car and apartment ownership is at an all-time high, and conspicuous consumption is all the rage. Many people are earning huge sums through job skills that would have landed their parents in reeducation camps during the Cultural Revolution — such as a global mind-set, a command of foreign languages and an intuitive understanding of capitalism. The Communist Party's grip on their lives is weakening as Beijing increasingly supervises rather than controls the roaring economy, allowing those with talent to get ahead. (来源:http://www.EnglishCN.com)

So why is there so much angst?

Experts say the very forces that provide unprecedented opportunity for young people in the new China are also delivering unprecedented stress, particularly though not exclusively in urban areas. Common among young Chinese is a feeling that they're living in a once-in-a-few-centuries era when dynasties topple and individual fortunes are made — and that they're missing out.

"The whole society is impatient, especially the young people," said Zhou Xiaozheng, a professor of sociology at People's University in Beijing. "President Hu Jintao said recently we Chinese must be modest and cautious and avoid arrogance. Of course, that means we're none of these things."

Though pressure to do well is evident almost everywhere in the world, experts say it's greater in China in part because people here think the nation has arrived late to the global economic party and needs to make up for lost time. Catching up economically with rich neighbors such as Japan and South Korea is seen as a way of "regaining" China's rightful place on the international stage.

Insecurity among young professionals, often manifest in frenzied job-hopping, is fueled by media coverage of the super-rich, such as online-game mogul Chen Tianqiao, worth an estimated $1.05 billion at age 31. Or Huang Guangyu, founder of electronic retailer GoMe, estimated to be worth $1.3 billion at 35. Or thirtysomething Ding Lei of Internet portal NetEase, at $668 million.

By most measures, Wang Sujun is doing well. The 32-year-old has a master's degree from Peking University, China's Harvard, and a prestigious job with Beijing Mobile, a major telecommunications company. He says he's happily married and in March welcomed the arrival of a healthy daughter, Zizuo. In a country where the average annual salary is less than $1,000, he's making more than 11 times that much.

But Wang doesn't feel successful.

"Life is so stressful, I feel enormous pressure on my shoulders all the time," he said, his words tumbling out in a series of rapid bursts. "If I could only do better somehow, I might become rich and happy."

When he meets with his three best friends, they talk about what they need to be more successful. Wang wants more money, and he worries that his peers have better jobs, nicer apartments, fancier cars.

"Each dog has its barking day," he said. "I keep asking, when is my day? I'm older and older. I know I should catch up. But I worry there isn't much time left."

Three wrenching transitions are battering Chinese society, and experts say that any one would be enough to jolt people's mental equilibrium: The economic system is in the midst of a 180-degree turn from communism to a market system. Hundreds of millions of people are migrating to the cities from the countryside. And where stability and duty once reigned, risk-taking is now the order of the day.

Most Chinese are far better off than they were before the government opened up the economy. Hundreds of millions have been lifted from poverty; they have more choice as consumers and greater opportunity for education. About 350 million people own cellphones and 95 million can access the Internet. But where once everyone suffered together, today they are watching the gap widen between the haves and the have-nots.

"Many people our age are psychologically unbalanced," said Zhou Pei, 48, a truck driver in Beijing. "What's so great about letting a few get rich while so many more are dragged into poverty? I really miss the Mao period when things were equal, and wish we could bring back the good old days."

Sociologists have a name for this syndrome: relative deprivation.

"This is especially true when it's personal — people see a neighbor get rich even though they used to be classmates and just the same," said Wang Zhenyu, a sociologist with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. "Chinese impatience is perhaps most pronounced when it comes to money."

Aware of the potential for political instability, the current leadership of Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao has placed a priority on balanced economic development.

It's easy to see what they're afraid of. Multibillionaire Bill Gates consistently ranks at the top of the list when schoolchildren are asked to name the person they most admire. Relatives used to burn fake money to mourn the dead and help them in the afterlife, but now they add modern status symbols to the pyre: mock credit cards, paper replicas of luxury cars and cardboard cellphones. Seductive images of wealth and status blanket the airwaves.

Young people looking for some way to balance the materialism find little comfort from a society that defines success in dollar signs, with few nods to personal contentment, scholarship or ethical behavior. Religion, a counterweight in many other societies, is discouraged by a Communist Party wary of its potential to galvanize political opposition.

China's get-rich-quick obsession has taken drastic forms. A 15-year-old girl recently kidnapped one of her relatives and demanded a $25,000 ransom before she was caught. "She sought to earn the most money in the shortest time," explained the Eastern Morning Post.

In a study of the sex industry in rural China, sociologist Zhou found similar dynamics. "A lot of young girls want to get rich so badly and want to make use of their beauty before it slips away. They consider working hard a waste of time and feel their looks are a waste if they don't take advantage of them immediately," he said. "People want to become fat in one bite."

Added to the mix are the drive and energy that Chinese families have passed down through generations, a prodigious force that is easily seen in the prosperity of overseas Chinese communities around the world.

Family experts say that drive to succeed is particularly strong in China now, as more parental frustration, wealth and expectations are channeled to the young. This is because many parents, sometimes referred to as the "tragic generation," had their most promising decade stolen when the Cultural Revolution threw society into chaos, shuttering schools and destroying careers.

In many cases, China's one-child population policy has meant more money for young people. But these single offspring also have two parents and four grandparents focused like laser beams on their success, projecting collective insecurities, fears and hopes on them in an effort to live through the younger generation.

"My mother says, 'If only I was born in this age, I could be someone,' " Wang Sujun said. " 'I could have even been a college teacher. Instead I was forced to be a common laborer.' "

As such pressures bear down, many young people feel they have already failed at a tender age.

"Where's my dream?" media planner Anan, 25, said on the Shenzhen News Net website, speaking on condition that her first name not be used. "Where are all the expectations I had just two years ago? I don't know how to go on with my life."


Yin Lijin in The Times' Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.
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