8 Nov 2012

Why affluence in China has brought society to a standstill

President Hu Jintao today kicks off the Chinese Communist Party’s 18th congress with a speech on his 10 years at the top. But Channel 4 News China producer Bessie Du has a different take on events.

Driving in Beijing, my friends complain about the total chaos of the city’s traffic. As people’s income has increased, so has the number of cars on the roads, but this is not the only reason the traffic crawls in Beijing. There are plenty of traffic rules but nobody bothers to follow them.

I once asked a frustrated friend who constantly honks and zigzags in and out of traffic lanes: “Why don’t you stay in your lane and wait for your turn?” “If I do that, I’ll never get anywhere,” she replied.

Then we reminisced about the days when we rode our bicycles everywhere, did not have gadgets, met up frequently and laughed a lot. 10 years ago we used to be so much more relaxed.

Reaching ‘xiaokang’

After they crushed the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, the Chinese government made a deal with the people: stay away from politics, and we’ll let you make money and improve your lives. China joined the World Trade Organisation and economic opportunities increased. Many reached “xiaokang” – the comfortable lifestyle the government promised.

However, the “happiness index” for many ordinary Chinese has dropped to a record low in the last decade. Many feel that the country has descended into lawlessness. No-one obeys the rules anymore because the authorities no longer have credibility.

Laws are used to benefit those who have power, and the link between power and money has gone way beyond the growing gap between rich and poor. While some become billionaires in less than a decade, the majority need to work two lifetimes to pay for an apartment in a big city.

The scale of injustice and inequality has created a much bigger problem than massive resentment and anger – people now emulate the behaviour of their leaders. While officials embezzle millions, business owners produce fake products to cheat consumers and doctors take bribes before treating their patients. No-one believes they’ll get what they need through honest means.

Lack of trust

A few weeks ago, a group of Chinese passengers kidnapped an airline crew because the flight had to divert to a different destination due to bad weather. Although the crew members said there would be a replacement flight, the angry passengers simply could not bring themselves to trust that the crew would make fair arrangements for them, so they held them up by force. People take matters in their own hands because they no longer trust the authorities.

Sitting in traffic in the gridlock created by everybody inching or swerving forward as soon as they get the chance, I see a picture of China today: people have lost faith in rules. We do not believe in the fairness of society any more. In this push to get ahead, society as a whole – burdened with aggression, fury and distress – has come to a standstill.

Bessie Du is Beijing producer for Channel 4 News