An Evening in Middle Class Life        October, 2009

There is a pattern in the west of seizing on negative China stories as definitive proof than revolution, or collapse, or the Second Coming are just around the corner.   Debt and moral vacuum and lack of trust and cheating.  But China is a big country, with a big middle class that is vested in ongoing stability.  This is just a dinner story from ten years ago, with government friends from Hangzhou and Shaoxing.  This is just middle class people relaxing and enjoying the holiday. 

This story is also about middle class CCP members, and such an observation seems sorely overlooked in most discussions of China's future.  I have no systematic data, but my educated guess is that a Venn diagram of Chinese middle class - however you wish to define them - would show great overlap with CCP membership.  There are about 90 million CCP members.  With some dual member households, let's speculate that comes to 60 million households.  These are the people holding nearly all government jobs, heading up non-government organizations, teaching in high schools and universities, and owning many small and large businesses.  Let's give those 60 million households one child and a grandparent or two, or four, and that is roughly the same as the size of the middle class.  CCP is the middle class, and when writers talk about emerging democracy and civil society and middle class demands for voice, we should remember who we are talking about.  The CCP is the bourgeoisie.

I went to dinner last night at Jennifer's apartment, with Stone, and James, and Morgan, and Shelly from Shaoxing.  Alice was there too.  Jennifer and her husband and son live in one of the new developments on Zijinghua Road, just past the xixi wetland national park and about fifteen minutes from ZUST.   Like many or most new developments in China, this one is gated, with a seven foot high wall at the perimeter.   There are problems with burglary in china, not so much robbery, but historically towns and developments of all kinds have been enclosed, in a cellular pattern, so gated communities now are partly for security but also a historic design legacy.   Since this is a pretty fancy development, and mostly for government people, there are two uniformed guards at the gates, who check for who you are visiting and act as building doormen for the residents- get this package, give directions to your aunt when she comes visiting, tell the plumber where to go to find your apartment when he comes to fix the toilet. 

Like most any new development, this one is very big.  I don't know the number of buildings- I will say, thirty- a mix of four story walkups with others, surrounding a driveway that curls around behind buildings and leads to an underground garage, as well as a fair amount of parking at grade level adjacent to the buildings.  The landscaping is pretty, bamboo and rocks and other green stuff, not as extensive as at some projects where there is no at grade parking, but still thoughtful.   There is a community building which has a dining room and a party room, and a slightly raised agora, with stone and landscaping that serves as a meeting point - "meet me at the agora in ten minutes."   Buildings are close together- the driveway is really one way, except in a couple of places where it doubles back on itself, and the feeling is that of close-knit, though expensive, community.   In the short two way driveway from the gate to the buildings, there are eight or ten small stores on each side of the street, on the first floor of the first two buildings.   A fruit stand, a dry cleaner, a grocery store with a few more essentials, I think an insurance office.    Think self-contained and walkable and low stress and low key.   The world is outside and tense, not far away, but inside, the tension melts.   At least that is what I saw.

Jennifer's family has the top floor and the fifth floor finished attic, really another entire floor, of a four story walkup.  The apartment has all the tricked out stuff typical of an middle American family with a ten year old boy.   The big screen tv set to video games of wii tennis, or baseball, or badminton.   Soccer ball in the corner, which we used a little in the dining room.   (I can beat the ten year old, no problem).   Plastic basketball net set up facing out from the middle of the railing on the stairway to the fifth floor, at about six feet high.   The kid is a good shot from behind the dining room table, but it is his court.   And he seldom has to drive past somebody twice his size, so I was able to hold my own. 

Stone, who is an administrator at a college about an hour away from ZUST but still in Hangzhou (east of the river and the Hi-Tech Zone) picked me up at school.  When we walked in to Jennifer's apartment everybody there was already making dumplings.  Alice joined in, and this was her entre to the Hangzhou group from one year later at IIT.   You know that many city governments send people to IIT each year, some from the same departments each year, but the group loyalty is to the group that comprises your year, not the group from your city.   So Shelly, from the same year as Jennifer in Chicago, was Alice's contact to get invited to this dinner.   But Alice was making dumplings with everybody else, and chatting away, and this is one way to get accepted into the group.   If I were crude, I would say it was sort of like dogs sniffing to see if the new person acceptable.  Everybody laughed at my attempts at dumpling making, which was fine.   Some of theirs, notably some of the guys, were not too great either, but my job is to be the clumsy foreigner. 

Jennifer's inlaws cooked dinner. In a way I have seen repeated many times, the parents cook, behind the closed parting doors to the kitchen, which are standard because so much Chinese cooking involves oil, and frying, and fish, but do not join us for dinner.   Dinner the usual- big cherries, not from China, but probably from Australia, maybe US, she said.   (Prices on cherries are down a little from the peak of spring festival.   At the peak, they were 65 rmb a pound, she said, which even if she meant a kilo, is still pretty expensive).  Everyone said they missed the prices on cherries in the US.  Big strawberries.   Little shrimps, which are easy to eat if you pull off the heads and the rest of the shell comes away easily.   Chinese are able to dismantle the shells in their mouths with their tongues, which must under different circumstances be a great comfort to Chinese women.  A fruit like a grape, but with a tough skin that must be peeled, but is good.  Of course, the dumplings we all made, by the dozens, when we got to the apartment, and is a source of much community building.   A shared food making experience that everyone's ancestors did.   Dumplings are what you eat at  the beginning and end of an event, so this was standard end of spring festival fare.  Also, since it was Lantern Festival day (eve, actually), we had fish balls, which are not nearly so repulsive as they sound.  A little sweetened dough with a little bit of tasty fish wrapped inside the ball, cooked for a moment.   Cabbage and mushrooms, and chicken feet and .... corned beef.    Also specially treated pork, that Jennifer confessed to buying frozen, because it is better than she could make herself, but was tasty with a dark sauce and lots of darker meat.   Alice brought a flagon, I think is the word, of Shaoxing rice wine, which is only from Shaoxing, and is famous, and is tender and drinkable without being sweet or killer in aftereffect, and is the head fake drink that Linda, one of our government students in Chicago, sometimes drinks to get through the nights of business dinners and drinking (One Third Coke, Two Thirds Sprite) in Shenyang, a thousand miles away.  When she is not surreptitiously mixing coke and sprite.

Fireworks on National Day

After dinner, the ten of us or so went downstairs to the agora.  Morgan had brought several boxes of fireworks, and tonight was the last night to set off fireworks during the spring festival.  Morgan and Stone were in charge of placement of the skyrockets and firecracker strings.  They placed some, held others in reserve.   Several of us took turns lighting the rockets, which were bursting in air just like in the song.   Not too high, maybe three or four stories, but pretty and loud and smoky and fun.   We stood around, talked, some other people stopped with their two year olds, and watched, others went about their business.   The other apartment buildings were not more than 30 or 40 yards away, but no one was yelling out the window or calling the cops or fussing at us.   Given the age of Jennifer and Morgan and the other students, you have to think of our parents at age 35 or 40, in the backyard with the neighbors, shooting off fireworks in 1955 or 1960.   Everybody the same age, everybody the same situation, including having parents live with them, everybody pretty happy to be where they are, everybody happy to let someone else be happy.  It is true that fireworks in china are part of the culture, and it certainly is true that I do not see a lot of what I am looking at, but I am telling you what I did see.   There is a lot of paper and mess to clean up after a fireworks display, but we did not have to worry about that, presumably because the cleaning people would be there in an hour or tomorrow morning to take care.  It is part of the deal.  They would do a good job on the cleaning, because that was their job.  

A digression-  there is a lot of writing and observation about how difficult it is to get Chinese to work.  Response to instructions is literal, and no one does more than minimally acceptable. The Chinese version of the Russian, "we pretend to work and they pretend to pay us."  I see some of the literalness in students, and some of the mule mentality - "we will work if you beat us" thing.    Maybe the positive side of that description is that people respond to incentives, and maybe the literal instruction is "pick up every visible scrap of paper you see," but I have a hard time reconciling the mule mentality with the cleanliness of the agora as I know it will be tomorrow.   Maybe having to work is a great incentive- the cleaning people are never twenty or thirty years old, but look to be seventy.   Though they might only be forty.

The evening stroll

After the fireworks, we walked toward the front gate, Jennifer chatting with a couple of neighbors on the way.   it is fascinating to see Jennifer this way.   In Chicago, she was the academic monitor of the Zhejiang students - the person in charge of making sure schoolwork got done and serving as liaison with the school faculty. My image of her was always this nice, not overdressed, but nicely dressed and together but tightly wound woman with a friendly but still Chinese seriousness about her.   Like she understood everything, just her range was intentionally limited.  Anyway, here she is in slightly faded jeans that are a little worn, and a floppy grey sweatshirt, and tennis shoes, and she looks relaxed and happy and the entire group of us is just a bunch of friends going for a walk after dinner and fireworks.  No agenda, no face, no guards.   I kid Jennifer that my one hope in China is that some night I take her out to some jazz club on Nanshan Road, and by the end of the night see her dancing on the table.    But with this Jennifer, the one last night, that does not have to be the hope anymore.  This is hostess Jennifer, and mom Jennifer, and daughter Jennifer, and wife Jennifer, and friend and colleague Jennifer, and the package is so much more interesting than the IIT academic monitor Jennifer. 

We walked a few blocks down Zijinghua Road, to Wen'er Road and Xichen Square, name of a neighborhood and a retail district.  There is a big department store I have been to a couple of times, and next to it is the actual square.  Nothing too fancy, just a fifteen foot tall sculpture to the moon month goddess, and a flat square surrounded on two sides by apartments and one by the department store.   The department store has a pizza hut and KFC on the first floor, and both are crowded.   This is Saturday night, so the KFC is busy.   That means that there are five lines of customers to place orders, each line four or five people deep.   Not because the busload of tourists from Naperville just arrived.   This is everyday busy.   Upstairs from the KFC and Pizza Hut is the strategically located health club. 

We stopped and got ice cream at KFC for Jennifer's son and his buddy, and walked over to the square, which was fitted out with a bunch of displays, all about celebrating New Year's year of the tiger and spring festival.   There were stands selling huge amounts of cheap Chinese junk- the same stuff we buy at street fairs and at the beach- the colored trinkets that spin, or blow in the wind, or pop up and down, or just look pretty, or colored light sticks.   We thought there would be fireworks at the square, and maybe there were later, but we left after about 45 minutes and a bunch of pictures of us together in front of the big plastic and paper tiger than moved its head and body on a small motor.   We could have stayed, but I think Alice and Shelly had to get back to Shaoxing, which is about 90 minutes away, and Alice had kept her driver the whole time in Hangzhou, so she wanted to give him a break and let him get home to Shaoxing before midnight.

We walked back to Jennifer's apartment, past her son's grade school, and past several other restaurants and apartment buildings.  It was a beautiful February night, about centigrade 10 or 12 degrees, so you needed a jacket, but no scarf or gloves or hat.   There were lots of people out, and stores were all open, and traffic moved, and couples walked by holding hands, and couples were out with their kid, and if you tell me that the entire chinese economy is a ponzi scheme, and will collapse next week, well, you have to account for the incredible normality of daily life.   I suppose we could be sitting in the eye of the hurricane, but the burden of proof is going to have to be on the extreme skeptics.   Can there be slowdowns in growth?   Can real estate prices drop some, and construction take a tumble, along with local government revenues?  Can there be news stories about why didn't we see this coming, and who do we blame, and what do we do now?   Can the PBOC have to step in and recapitalize some banks?  Can the central government have to restructure fiscal relationships with the provinces, to bail out provincial and city developments?   Can a mountain of debt be a problem for China, too?  I just don't think Xichen Square is going away, nor the KFC, nor Jennifer's apartment complex or lifestyle.   Michigan Avenue is still there, and stores are still open, and I bet the beach will be crowded on a hot day in July, when I come back.    We have very tough times ahead in the US, but I don't think we are going to look like 1932, and  there can be tough times ahead in China, but most everybody will weather the storm. There is a big differences among a financial crisis, an economic crisis, and a depression. There is froth in the financial and real estate markets in China, and that will lead to a tough financial crisis and a minor economic crisis at some point, but it will be contained, because of the ability of the government to act and because past growth, real estate excepted, has been based on realities, not hyperbole.   Yes, the infrastructure may be too advanced to suit the economy (an argument I have heard made by some macroeconomists, and which I get but I think is wildly academic in this case), and there will be some empty office buildings, maybe a lot of empty office buildings, and the apartments are empty because Chinese are long term investors, so the crisis from a drop in apartment prices will be confined to developers mid project and to a few individuals who will need the cash, but their units will be snapped up quickly, and the office space crisis will be limited to the owners, some of which are SOE, who will be bailed out, and when the economic conditions change, the migrant farmers can go back to the farms in the rural provinces, where the government is already building infrastructure and encouraging FDI, and some loosening of investment laws will unleash the next wave of consumer-driven investing and spending in China, so some power shifts will take place.   (Another digression - I disagree now with these early speculations about the Chinese macroeconomy.  That is another story.  I leave these observations as they were made in 2009 to remind myself of how radically different my own views are now.)

I know, I know- I  am seeing Jennifer's China, not the China of 800,000,000 peasants, but the people in Xichen Square are not all of Jennifer's lifestyle, but they are there anyway, and the Chinese Dream is well and alive throughout China, I think, so the government has a couple of generations to make good on its promises, riots and disruptions and google and corruption on land taking and blocking of facebook and persecution of activists figured in.   This is by no means a perfect society, Jennifer's lifestyle notwithstanding, but it is not fragile and not going to hell in a handbasket.   It is 5,000 years old, with pretty much everyone the same culture, and zero history of democracy, and a cultural expectation that the government will provide, which it gladly does, cynically if you wish, to keep the powers that be the powers that be.   With  the legal ability to protest, and strike, and democracy, and far worse metropolitan conditions relatively than in China, and far worse economic prospects for the next decade, the government in the US seems able to buy off those damaged by the crisis with some references to capitalism and free markets and hope and making sure everyone is tuned in to American Idol or the next blonde teenager disappearance national crisis.   Somebody ask Lubet what he thinks about the status of protest in the US now, compared with that in 1968.  And the Chinese government is very well practiced at controlling protest.