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China's new generation gap

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James Reynolds | 10:53 UK time, Friday, 23 January 2009

While we were in Hubei, my colleague and I went to a village to see what life is like for migrant workers who've come back for the holidays.

In the village of Xinli, the most exciting attraction is a half-broken snooker table set up by the side of the main road. Two young men on their new year holiday play a few frames. No one's watching.

Wang Jiao.jpgAcross the road, 20-year-old Wang Jiao catches up with her family for the first time in months. She works at a textile factory in southern China. She's one of this country's 200 million or so migrant workers. The money they make has changed the way that China lives. Wang Jiao's wages - and the money brought in by her brothers and sisters - have allowed their family to buy a fridge, a computer and a washing machine.

"After I graduated from secondary school I didn't have much to do," says Wang Jiao, "So I went out to work like the others. There are some jobs here but in the south it's easier to earn more money."

After this new year holiday ends, Wang Jiao will go back to her job in the south. But this year many millions more will have to stay at home in the countryside. Their jobs are gone. A few minutes walk away, we reach the home and small rice farm of the Chen family.

Chen Fang'an and Chen ZhongweiChen Zhongwei looks on as his parents make new year candles from a bucket of wax. Zhongwei, who's 26, used to work as a security guard in southern China. He'd planned to stay in the south to open a restaurant. But his factory lost orders, and his wages were cut. So now he's back home in the countryside without a job.

"I feel it's so dull when I come back to my village," says Chen Zhongwei, "I can't find any passion here. Young people like me won't consider farming. If we farm, we will be seen as useless."

His father - Chen Fang'an - stands quietly nearby. He's not used to talking to foreigners. But there is something on his mind.

"I have two sons," says Chen Fang'an, "Neither of them is married. The bad economy means that we can't find wives for them. Matchmakers are unwilling to introduce girls to our sons."

The problem that China now faces can be summed up in the difference between this father and son. The father, in his worn-out clothes, grew up during famine and revolution. His main hope has simply been to survive. The son, in jeans and smarter shoes, has grown up during peace and expansion. His hope has been for a better life. Now for the first time, there's a problem.

This year, Chen Zhongwei and millions more find that they can't get the life they want. But they will no longer accept the life their parents have led.


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  • 1. At 1:20pm on 23 Jan 2009, lzreading wrote:

    Nice follow-up. But still not sure where you have been, Henan or Hubei? In the video you said you got off the train in Zhengzhou. :)

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  • 2. At 2:53pm on 23 Jan 2009, readerConan wrote:

    It reflects a development from the last generation to this one, isn't it ?

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  • 3. At 3:21pm on 23 Jan 2009, haachang wrote:

    I hope the son will come around and find something in his hometown. The basis of all the differences is money. The father can accept a less materialized life, not the son. That’s part of the reason why China has some policy to restrict people from rural inner region migrating to affluent cities. It’s not fair, I know. It’s not fair for US or Western European countries to restrict immigration either. About the sons not finding wives, I think it’s an irony. A lot of parents made their choices that they wanted a boy, not a girl. After 20 years, they want a girl without all the investment of their time, money and effort.

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  • 4. At 3:44pm on 23 Jan 2009, xbang2003 wrote:

    First of all, thanks for focusing on our normal chinese people.
    those poor farmers are actually the most powerful group in China. If our government cannot sort out their problems wisely, our country will have big trouble.
    the young gerneration obviously want more than our parents, however it is still small compare to yours, James, if you do more research.
    It doesn't mean that I am going to argue for my country again like last year. since I came back from UK, I do find many problems here in Beijing. and I do appreciate lot of reports about China by BBC and other foreign media. China need to be reformed by ourselves and yours - our friends.

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  • 5. At 5:16pm on 23 Jan 2009, ktwar2009 wrote:

    Good post,
    Your reporting has gotten better since you left the big city.

    it seems children growing up in farms on the country side always seems to want the big bright lights of the city...its true in the US, I guess EU, and especially in China

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  • 6. At 7:50pm on 23 Jan 2009, waikikisam wrote:

    A substantial part of China's economic growth is from foreign investments. Governments of all levels (province, city, county) are exploiting migrant workers as to offer cheap labor to attract foreign investments. It had already created a wealth distribution problem and the gap between the wealthy and the poor is widening. During economic slow-down in times like now; when factories in the cities are not able to absorb these migrant laborers, social unrest is in the foreseeable future.

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  • 7. At 8:41pm on 23 Jan 2009, MiketheWaiter wrote:

    you know, here in the west, we have it easy.... no wife...??? go hang out at a bar or a church and you will find one. No need to pay matchmakers. I admire that the chinese seem to have a loyalty to family obligations. nice post!

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  • 8. At 8:43pm on 23 Jan 2009, sinodeplant wrote:

    Over here in Canada the same but worst, a few people that I know have worked hard for many years to own a house, they are no longer working and they will have no more house to live in.

    Sure would like to know if being homeless in a developed country is better than being a working poor in a 3rd world country?

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  • 9. At 10:01pm on 23 Jan 2009, dennisjunior1 wrote:

    I think that the Generation gap in China is going to be forced to relocate to the bigger cities in China to find work and be able to support there families in Rural China...

    ~Dennis Junior~

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  • 10. At 01:38am on 24 Jan 2009, Catfucius wrote:

    The gap between the haves and havenots in China is unsustainably huge... The poor in China have such hard hard lives. I hope the government does more for them: education, healthcare, etc.

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  • 11. At 03:27am on 24 Jan 2009, bluejeansbj wrote:

    Welcome to my hometown Hubei, James.

    My father was born of a poor farmer's family. He was lucky enough to go to college, which fundamentally changed his life, and the life of his children. Most of my cousins are still in the country side, but as James said, they are no longer willing to accept the fate of their parents. Which I think is a progress, as at least they now have something to hope and struggle for in their life. Even for them, their life has changed dramatically - food and clothes are no longer a worry, schools for kids are affordable, electricity and tap water is widely accessible, new homes have been built for almost every family in the village, and a medical insurance for them which covers over 70% of medical expenses has been set up in the past couple of years.

    In general I think this is one of your best blogs. Talk more with the ordinary Chinese people and I think you will understand why they don't hate the government as much as you think they should.

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  • 12. At 04:12am on 24 Jan 2009, freakingout wrote:

    Yes, according to the survey, the rate of the university students who come from the countryside drops.

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  • 13. At 04:53am on 24 Jan 2009, xzam1989 wrote:

    that's perfectly normal!

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  • 14. At 08:10am on 24 Jan 2009, Daxiongmao wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 15. At 12:32pm on 24 Jan 2009, funnyanotherblogger wrote:

    A man should set up his career first then get marry. In old China, people used to get married when they were 14-16 years old (by arranged marriage). Thanks to Chinese government's tough stand on reinforcing the marriage laws, the arrange marriage and early marriage (teenagers' marriage) are gone.However in today's rural China you can still see traces of the old tradition that burried so many young people's dreams. I want to tell the father to let go of his son. Donot burdon him with marriage and children. Although China is hit by the economy crisis, still if he has a dream then he may one day realise it. How many millionares in China have a mudded-legs background? Give him time and let him try.

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  • 16. At 1:47pm on 24 Jan 2009, onjournalism wrote:

    It is indeed fascinating to capture contemporary China in terms of generational gap.

    Both in modern cities and rural viliages, daughters/sons are negotiating and creating new relationships with their parent generations.

    Adding to this is city-countryside divide and what is often referred to in British contexts as class: upper, middle, working, and under classes.

    It is time to dispel the myth of a communist society where the invocation of 'we Chinese' tends to deflect people's attention from how divided and differentiated we Chinese are, depending on a complex of factors including age, gender, family background, education, region, and so forth.

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  • 17. At 08:20am on 25 Jan 2009, Walsh of Wembley wrote:

    That's strange - the blog becomes really quiet when it's Chinese New Year. Since most overseas Chinese will be using computers at the moment to send messages to the relatives back home, I'll put this down to the CCP's spring festival break then.

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  • 18. At 09:54am on 25 Jan 2009, TopCat1802 wrote:

    I think the situation in China has largely been brought upon by themselves, they (the Chinese) have reduced their production costs to the bare minimum in order to win production contracts, so companies have moved their production to China as its cheaper to manufacture there and then import them than it is to produce locally, but with the world in recession there is no market for the goods being produced so the companies are no longer viable, and its becoming cheaper to produce the same goods locally once again where the production infrastructure has not been removed.

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  • 19. At 3:07pm on 25 Jan 2009, catnipcraze wrote:

    So it's not a myth.

    No matter how fast China's economy grows, I don't care if its 10% or 50% real growth, by the time our generation die(born in the 80s), it's still a low income 3rd world country, meaning I'll never see the economic change in my life in China. Plus when the growth converge to the steady state, it will eventually slow down.

    Reynolds is a fun last name, I used to work for this company called "reynolds and reynolds" they sell sewage steels. Apparently it will be totally idiotic for us readers here post any kind of "comment" on this blog for everybody knows anything new about China is old. Anything come out of China is depressing, it's a state with no hope. The poor economy, the overpopulated land, the crazy nightmare environment pollution... I can go on and on and on .. and on..

    I'm leaving China, everybody else in this country should too.

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  • 20. At 10:28am on 26 Jan 2009, Cantab wrote:

    You have highlighted the very essence of a problem:

    "the new generation think they can get wonderful jobs and achieve so much"

    When the only sustainable economy is for 95% of the urban people to work in factories. I'm NOT talking about migrant workers, I am talking about the white collar families who aspire Nobel prizes and CEO positions for their children.

    This reality fall will be harsh.

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  • 21. At 8:32pm on 26 Jan 2009, sinodeplant wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 22. At 05:44am on 27 Jan 2009, funnyanotherblogger wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 23. At 05:51am on 27 Jan 2009, funnyanotherblogger wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 24. At 02:44am on 01 Feb 2009, SimonChin wrote:

    If the younger generation cannot get the life they want, but will no longer accept the life their parents have led, this will pose a big problem for themselves and the society as a whole. The economic downturn is not only affecting the migrant workers of the rural areas, but also the city dwellers who may lose their jobs as a result of job retrenchment. In the face of this economic meltdown, we have to learn to adapt to this new economic situation and accept whatever jobs come our way. I hope the world economy will pick up in the second half of the year and people from both the city and the countryside will be able to find the jobs they like to do.

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  • 25. At 2:54pm on 08 Feb 2009, kymberli wrote:

    What is so detrimental to China about the migrants' move back home to the villages? These people are bringing home their expertise and skills developed in the cities.
    When I went to China in June 08, reverse migration (i.e. migration from cities to the countryside) had already occured as a consequence of the saturation of the urban and industrial sectors. Migrants said they found undiscovered niches in the rural economy, a space to which they contributed their business skills learned from the city.
    All the development and growth the world has seen from China till today has emanated from the East coast, the "Golden Coast" which was baptised by Deng Xiaoping's Southern Visit in the early 1980s.
    The move to the interior and Western provinces is one that is crucial for the sustainability of the Chinese economy. Diversification, entrepreneurship, economic integration of the migrant into the economy is not only essential for developing the interior, but also a crucial element in the social integration of the oft-discriminated migrant into the economy.

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  • 26. At 9:49pm on 15 Feb 2009, somenobodysomebody wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

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