Opportunity in the post-Mao era — like all opportunity — has been a question of being in the right place at the right time. Below, I have translated a blog post, lamenting the fact that even if Shenzhen is the right place, it is no longer the right time; the opportunities are going, going, gone and if what remains are wage labor and education, even they are not enough for the poor.
Of note, the author uses the expression “poor second generation (穷二代)”, the direct opposite of the “rich second generation (富二代)”. More interestingly, he refers to “second generation farmers (农二代)”, as if the transition from farmer to urban resident was a natural progression. However, there have been generations of Chinese farmers — in fact, this is one definition of traditional Chinese culture. What then, we might wonder, is it about Shenzhen that gives rise to the expectation that each generation must do economically better than the last?
Shenzhen: Unfortunate Generation 80, Unhappy Workers, and the Hopeless Poor Second Generation
First of all, let me explain that my title refers to me. Perhaps you, who are reading this heading are one of the lucky Generation 80, the happy office workers. Or, maybe you’re one of the poor second generation or a second generation farmer but aren’t hopeless. If so, congratulations. My opinion isn’t going to be yours, its only representative of my thoughts.
Why is Generation 80 unfortunate? To use a phrase that everyone knows, when Reform and Opening opportunities covered the earth, if you dared, you would succeed. In the telenovela “Foolish Youth”, Silly Older Sister casually opened a business and got rich. Likewise, anyone who came to play in early Shenzhen could open a clothing factory. But what did Generation 80 do? Some of us were in our mothers’ bellies, some of us were sleeping in a quilt, and most of us were without ancestors and afterwords a goddamn one-child movement. As I remember, childhood was being homeless, dependent on others, and no time for family reunions. I just watched “Only You”, which told the story about a mother who became a general manager, who spent her time agonizing about the fact she couldn’t leave work at 6 o’clock to go home and spend time with her child.
What I want to say, if we compare stories its enough to make one pissed off. I remember that up until I was 7 years old, I didn’t know what my mother looked like. So how would we describe my situation? My mother wanted to give birth to a brother and so she went off in hiding to the mountains. At the same time, I was in danger of being taken away by the Family Planning Bureau. So I was always hiding, just like a common criminal, moving between my parents’ families. At that age, I wasn’t thinking about personality and human rights issues. All I did was cry every night for my father not to leave me alone. I had neither toys nor friends because I was afraid of strangers taken me away. My young body couldn’t withstand that bitterness. The reason for all of this was so my parents could have a second child. And once they did, our house was destroyed and our possessions confiscated. Do you think I’m exaggerating? Well, I’m not sure what happened in other places, but those who don’t believe my story should go to a Guangxi village and ask; the people who were there are still healthy! Having a child outside the policy, penalties, forced abortions, no money, living in hiding? The monk can escape but the temple can’t. Anything worth money was all taken away, include the door frame. You still won’t tell us where the mother is? We’ll destroy the house! I’m not parroting someone else’s story, this is what I saw with my own eyes! Today, we don’t worry about raising children as if it were a heinous crime, but that’s how we have lived the 80s.
Unfortunately, even after members of the 50s and 60s generations had taken advantage of the opportunities to get rich, we were still children. By the time we had identity cards, they were the ones who got rich first [a reference to Deng Xiaoping’s justification for unequal reforms]. In contrast, we welcomed the era of a saturated and competitive market.
Previously, building a house with your own hands was a common story, today its a fairy tale and words from a dream. When we were still in school, fervent passions and enthusiastic words seemed to be singing, “Our future dreams are assured, our hearts follow our hopes…”
However, once you got into the real world, then you understood — all of the territory had already been occupied by someone else. Because you were self-reliant, you thought that based on your intelligence, you could discover a space in the market and then succeed. Because you had tracked down books about entrepreneurial success, you didn’t let go of any romantic thoughts about “the next big thing”, always thinking that you could do something that no one else had done, exceed the competition, earn huge profits from and build a home with your own two hands.
But after you had exhausted all your ideas and options, then you discovered, China doesn’t lack for people. You weren’t the only one who spent your entire day scheming to take advantage of speculative opportunities; everything you could think of doing, someone else did long before you! You want to be an interloper? Sorry, but you’re stealing someone else job. In addition to monopolies, China also has territories and unstated rules. You want a bowl of porridge? Sorry, you’ve arrived too late. If you want to steal a bowl by force, then you’ll need either enough money or social status or power. But if that’s the case, can you say that you built your house with your own two hands? Thus, the lesson is if it’s not the first pot of gold, don’t waste your time. If you’re a proletariat living in a thatched hut, what can you do? If your parents or relatives have money, you can get their support. But in that case, once again, you’re not the protagonist of this essay because you’re not the poor second generation, you belong to the rich second generation or the bureaucrat second generation…
If you belong both to Generation 80 and the poor second generation, then fate has given you two roads forward — studying or wage labor. Many people have crossed the narrow bridge of education and changed their fate, but many more have become wage laborers either because they had the misfortune to have been poor or have received bad grades they couldn’t continue studying. Their profession is called common labor and they are called many different names — vagrants, migrant workers, rural workers, and outside service workers. Now its fashionable to call them New XX People. They spend their youth in repetitive, mechanical lives. They are a machine in the factory, 80 to 90 percent of them are crowded together. Their household possessions are a suitcase and a bed quilt. They sleep on rickety bed frames. They earn the government’s minimum wage. In fact, if you are actually paid the full minimum wage you’re doing okay. In “our neck of the woods”, minimum wage is the most common salary, its also the highest salary.
I’ve said so much and still don’t know if it can be printed, so I’m just going to stop here and say more later. What I want to emphasize is that we of the poor second generation have the ideals and courage and responsibility to better ourselves, however we’re discovering that in the present situation, we really are this helpless. We don’t want to be resigned, but we don’t have the strength to change the situation.
Ask yourself, if you knew what it is to walk this road, if you’ve experienced endless failure and tribulation, would you realize that your courage is nothing more than empty words of comfort and would you feel hopeless when thinking about the future? Would you discover that no matter what you do, you are unable to change the dictates of fate and can only watch your youth waste away?