The sight of Japanese refugees has forced us to rethink global modernity because if Japan’s house of cards can fall, then none of us are safe. Below, I’ve translated Yang Qian’s thoughts. Chinese version follows. Also, in Mandarin the term “房奴” literally means “house slaves”, however because the term refers to people who have been enslaved by their mortgage debt, I’ve used the expression mortgage slave. If anyone has a better translation, please advise.
If even the Japanese can become refugees, what should China’s mortgage slaves do?
By Yang Qian
The fact of Japanese refugees is something we’re not used to.
For Chinese people, we’re not surprised to see refugee centers and camps in Africa, the near East, or countries like the Balkans. While famine, drought, and panic cause people to loose their homes or even die of sickness in war torn places like Somalia, Pakistan, Chechnya, and Afghanistan. In these places, it’s not strange at all to see ordinary people take on extraordinary suffering. But who ever imagined that refugee camps would appear overnight in Japan, once the second richest country in the world, where 100s of thousands of people struggle with hunger and death?
We’re dumbfounded! Stunned! Nothing we can say is strong enough to describe the feeling. If most Chinese hadn’t seen this event with our own eyes, I believe that none of us would believe the news. But even so, what do Japanese refugees have in common with Chinese mortgage slaves? A lot! It’s because of our willingness to take on mortgage debt that China’s GDP has surpassed Japan’s and is charging to overtake the United States. This is what the Japanese did, too. But maybe Japan’s current disaster will bury all that.
It’s as if modern people believe an unspoken truth that natural disasters have a limited effect on economically developed countries. Even if the disaster exceeds a society’s ability to endure it, nevertheless we believe that developed countries can quickly restore the situation to what it was. The most common example offered to prove this point is the Kobe earthquake. Even though the 7.9 degree earthquake was devastating, nevertheless, reconstruction after the quake allowed Japanese economy and society to recover. In other words, it seems that economic development not only guarantees social development and happiness, but also protects us against natural disaster. This has been uncontrovertable proof of the statement “development is the hard truth.” Unfortunately, on March 11, 2011, Japan’s 9.0 earthquake ended the myth of “economic development is the cure for all problems.”
We all know that Japan once had the strongest national economy after the United States. Japan has been a worldwide economic power, especially in Asia. However what Japan did to sustain is position, the social price that Japan has paid, we have never been willing to take into account. For example, let’s look at the country’s nuclear energy policy. Nuclear energy became the only choice for maintaining that level of economic growth because Japan lacks fossil fuels. The concentration of population in cities is another example. The pressure of economic development since WWII has centralized consumption in cities. Previously, we lauded Japan’s success, and have even used it to justify copying their development choices. Now we finally see what price the Japanese people paid for this success.
Let’s talk about nuclear energy. What will it mean if the experts are right and Japan will have to “bury” the reactors? Based on statistics from Chernobyl, that one reactor cost a total of 18 billion, not including the price of removing the contamination from the surrounding area. Want to save money? Pray that nothing else happens. In China, a nuclear accident will be greater than any natural disaster.
What’s more, the reconstruction of “developed society” is not something an ordinary person can achieve just because he wants to. How difficult is it to reconstruct society? It’s not hard to imagine if we remember that most Chinese urbanites are mortgage slaves. If an earthquake or some other disaster caused the house you bought on mortgage to disappear, what would happen if the banks still required you to pay off your mortgage? Could you rationally and stoically accept this decision? Or maybe you already paid off your mortgage, but now you have to start from scratch and use all your extra savings in order to become a mortgage slave, again. Would you blithely say, “If we don’t get rid of the old, we can’t build the new?” Remember, you can’t rely on the government to step in, because whether or not the national government chooses to help you isn’t your decision. Moreover, in “developed societies” basic structure and policy aren’t questioned or changed because of you or ordinary people like you. Maybe the government will adjust insurance coverage or help those in areas most affected by the disaster. But if you had to pay what you did in order to get back what you lost, would you make the same decision?
The time has come to re-evaluate the goal of “economic development” precisely because in the end, the burden will be carried by ordinary people, despite the price that mortgage slaves are and are not willing to pay.
With respect to the Japanese tragedy, what we Chinese have most difficulty understanding is also what we most admire: the Japanese people’s calm, order, and endurance. The international and national media have focused on their response, speculating that it is a result of long preparation for a major earthquake and trust in their government, as well as a cultural trait. I accept this explanation. But I have a small question, if this “orderly and rational” society is also the reason behind this level of disaster, is the admirable response of ordinary Japanese people comedy or tragedy?
The fact of Japanese refugees, what does it mean? For a China still drunk after surpassing Japan in the GDP rankings, it’s worth stopping to consider the implications. But maybe we have neither the time nor the inclination to stop and think. After all, we are facing an even “greater and more difficult” goal — surpassing the United States.
Alas, this is how great countries are made!