Before 1980, all of the people of China were equal—equally poor. From higher government positions to urban school teachers, 700 Yuan (divide by 6 for U.S. dollars) was a top monthly salary.
Then Deng Xiao-ping announced "to get rich is glorious!" It was a massive change in economic policy. By allowing market forces to reward some, those new rich would in turn pull up the rest of the citizenry around them. If the goal was to improve the lives of Chinese citizens, then "it does not matter whether the cat is black or white, as long as it catches the mouse." And the mouse was economic growth.
Deng’s policy was successful beyond anyone’s expectations. China has four and a half times more people than the United States. A portion of their population over twice the size of that of the United States has been propelled into the middle and upper classes.
But in my annual trips to China, I sense that times are changing. In an era of rapid change, many new words arise. One of them is pronounced: "foo-are-dye." The "foo" is the common Chinese character seen during Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) celebrations, hanging in red on doorways; it means "prosperity." "Are dye" means "second generation." This is the name for the children of the newly rich, not too different from our use of "nouveaux rich." For the first time, China has a massive generation of youngsters who are coming of age without any childhood experience of poverty.
Deng Xiao-ping’s philosophy that the new rich would pull up the poor worked because the first generation of newly rich remembered being hungry and living without electricity or plumbing as children. And that first generation of wealthy were eager and able to help others, and in particular their extended family members. In the 1990s and into the early 2000s, there was empathy for struggling neighbors still trying to climb the economic ladder.
But now a second generation of rich children have grown up and are entering business and management positions. And they do not have the experience background of their parents. Without the perspective gained from having a poor childhood, fewer from the second generation rich are fulfilling Deng Xiao-ping’s hope that the rich will pull up the poor around them.
I see this in the new residential high-rise communities that are replacing the older crowded apartment complexes. Just ten years ago, you could walk the streets in the evening and buy from sidewalk venders anything from food to toys to clothing and jewelry—and it was cheap. These street venders hawking their wares had no store rent or other expenses. But they were dressed poorly. The food carts left grease spots on the street. They encroached on space needed by a growing car population. And they just didn’t "look nice" to those living in the massive new residential apartments with the spacious trees and grass. More and more Chinese residents lacked empathy for the street hawkers and demanded they be moved out of view.
The police assigned this duty, called the "hawker patrol" in Hong Kong, have the thankless task of evicting these poor street vendors, and keeping the streets cleared. Cities now provide special areas of wooden stalls lining alleyways, or cheap side street shops. But these are numbered and rented, and that means added costs to pass on to buyers. The venders’ profits will be less.
The old folks often choose to be left behind in the countryside valleys, to live on and eventually die in conditions resembling 1930s Appalachia. Some retire and move into towns in a massive "townification." The growing majority now living in cities have risen from Depression-Era conditions to approaching our standard of living. What took us over 70 years, they are achieving in less than two generations. And along with that is a growing attitude of "I got mine; you get yours."
There is a Chinese saying that "Poor families produce good students." Education is nearly worshiped here as the path out of poverty.
There is also a Chinese saying that a prosperous family lasts but two generations.