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China: the super tank

“You don’t pull a super tank around without any collateral damage. Overall the tank will shift but there will be some side effects”

“You don’t pull a super tank around without any collateral damage. Overall the tank will shift but there will be some side effects”. This is how Jonathan Geldart, author of the book Inside the Middle Kingdom and Executive Director of Greater China, Grant Thornton International defines the implications of the some of the changes the Chinese society is currently going through. In this present article, we will draw some conclusions from what Mr. Geldart shared with us at our most recent event, China’s emerging middle class, morality and money, where he drew on his personal experience to explain how the Chinese society has been changing and how these social and economic changes have affected the policy that the Chinese Government have carried out as well as the national education system.

The rise of middle class in China

According to a study by consulting firm McKinsey & Company, 76% of China’s urban population will be considered “middle class” by 2022. Moreover, the young generation is expected to account for 53% of total Chinese consumption by 2020. In addition, another element worth noticing, as Jonathan explained, is saving culture: if British people manage to save only 12% of their income, Chinese people save up to 48% of their salaries. This leads to a population that has both time and money, hence their strong power consumption.

“Many of these Chinese children grow up believing that “they can have whatever they want whenever they want it”

This situation is fostered by social phenomena as well, such as the change in the way children are brought up. China’s ageing population together with the only child policy (introduced in the 1980s) meant children find themselves surrounded by two sets of grandparents, on their mothers’ side and on their fathers’ side, and they end up being the precious object of focus of six people. The fact that, as Jonathan stated, “too much attention does not always and necessarily have a positive impact on the child’s growth” is proved by the fact that many of these Chinese children grow up believing that “they can have whatever they want whenever they want it”, now more than before. As Chinese children grow up, this want-it-now, have-it-now culture is further fostered by the Western culture. These young 20-year-old people have cash, they have aspirations, they have access to the Western world through VPN, which makes them believe that everything is available and is just there for them to use it. In fact, just imagine how high the potential consumption power of ambitious 20 year olds, who have aspirations and expectations and more financial resources than their parents have ever had when they were their age, can get.

 

The downside of the rise of the Chinese middle class

“If people are rewarded and encouraged to cheat, they will keep on cheating”

As Jonathan pointed out, this sudden empowering of the Chinese young generations has led to a slip of moral values. In fact, as the culture seems to encourage people to get rich quickly, rather than well, a similar shift has happened in the education field as well. There are courses offering to teach students how to pass exams, rather than actually teaching them the course in its entirety. Because of its bluntness, Jonathan associated this approach with Deng Xiaoping’s “Cat Theory”: just like it doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white and as long as it catches mice, it’s a good cat. Similarly, it doesn’t matter what you know, provided that you pass the exam and make money, that’s good enough. This new trend goes together with the mantra “Want it now, have it now” and, as there’s no easy way to get everything that we want exactly when we want it, it seems to suggest that cheating is OK. It is this very mindset that triggers what Jonathan defined as the “cheat system”, in which “if people are rewarded and encouraged to cheat, they will keep on cheating”.

Chinese people’s reaction: return to the core of Chinese identity

As Jonathan remarked, the Chinese party and also the older generations are aware of this phenomenon and they’re trying to take action against it. This can be seen in the comeback of the Chinese tea culture and the rise of new tea houses. In a world where everybody’s lives seem to revolve around money and professional success, Chinese people have been rediscovering the importance of personal relationships over professional ambitions. Jonathan also noticed that most recently there has been a change in the education system, which he considers to be a response to the problems raised, to introduce culture as part of the school curriculum, as a means of reinforcing a sense of traditional values and national character.

Conclusion

“You don’t pull a super tank around without any collateral damage. Overall the tank will shift but there will be some side effects”, Jonathan said about the most recent changes in the Chinese society and the side effects that these bring along. China is changing, for good and bad. But, as Jonathan reminds us, the positive is that underneath there is a government that cares and a people that care for it even more.

 

China Unbound specialise in Chinese language, business and culture courses for businesses and professionals in London. 

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