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This isn’t the China I remember

This isn’t the China I remember

But with a quarter of the world’s construction cranes said to be in the city during China’s boom years, raising skyscrapers from what had been rice paddies, attitudes had changed. My credit card was returned with one hand; the receptionist barely looked up. My relatives no longer asked that I bring American goods for them, either.

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Last Updated : 01 May 2024, 05:46 IST
Last Updated : 01 May 2024, 05:46 IST
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By Gish Jen

Shanghai: In 1979 my mother pulled out a Band-Aid in a Nanjing hospital. The nurses clustered around it, amazed. “The West has everything!” they said.

We were on a family visit to China, where my Shanghai relatives were similarly wowed by our excellent teeth and ample body fat, not to mention our descriptions of American dishwashers, refrigerators and air-conditioning. And with the general awe came VIP treatment. Hosts broke out bottles of expensive orange soda that they freely mixed with expensive warm beer. We could not escape drinking this any more than we could escape our government-assigned “guide,” whose job was to strictly monitor visitors like us. Relatives or not, we were foreigners.

I returned to teach English at the Shandong Mining Institute in 1981. My students were coal mining engineers preparing to study abroad, so that they might bring back safer mining techniques. I was their “foreign expert.” As such, I had not only a sit-down toilet in the apartment provided to me, but also running hot water, an unheard-of luxury. My ayi, or housekeeper, would make a fire under a vat of water on the roof and, when it was ready, turn the faucet handle in my bathtub.

After class, my students would bring stools out to the basketball court where, each facing a different direction, they would sit and study for hours on end. Loving their country and wanting to make it strong, they were grateful for Westerners like me. Foreign as we were, we were a help.

Fast forward a few decades to a booming China. In my many visits over the years — as a teacher, as a visiting artist and as a tourist — Shanghai hotel staff had always returned my credit card to me with two hands, a bow of the head, and a smile.

But with a quarter of the world’s construction cranes said to be in the city during China’s boom years, raising skyscrapers from what had been rice paddies, attitudes had changed. My credit card was returned with one hand; the receptionist barely looked up. My relatives no longer asked that I bring American goods for them, either. “China has everything,” they said then. As many proudly proclaimed, the 20th century was America’s; the 21st was China’s.

One seldom hears that triumphalist tone today. Instead, the talk is of a loss of confidence and trust in the Chinese government. People remain proud of their city, which now boasts excellent, cosmopolitan food and spotless streets. There are huge new sports centers featuring tennis and paddle-boarding, there is an artificial beach with pink sand. The city is far greener than in years past, too. Magnolia and cherry trees bloom everywhere and even the strips under the freeways have been landscaped. And thanks to the ubiquitous security cameras, Shanghai is spectacularly safe.

Yet below the surface lurks a sense of malaise. In this famously cosmopolitan city, there are weirdly few foreigners compared to before, many having left due to the stifling policies during the pandemic or because international companies have pulled out staff, or other reasons. Clothing shops are empty and many other stores have closed. The Nanjing West Road shopping district, previously a sea of humans, is strangely underpopulated.

Shanghainese are still outraged at having been locked down for two months in the spring of 2022 to stem a surge in Covid-19 cases with little time to prepare. Such were the shortages of essentials that Tylenol was for sale by the pill. And so heavy-handed were even the post-lockdown policies that residents took to the streets in protest.

But for many, the pandemic debacle only capped a series of governmental blunders starting with Premier Li Keqiang urging young people to open their own businesses in 2014. This and other missteps cost wave after wave of people their life savings and many Chinese now blame government ineptitude and erraticism for bringing the economy to a standstill. As a Shanghainese friend put it, the government has turned China around and around until, like spinning cars, people’s engines have stalled and their wheels have locked up.

The result has been so steep and unrelenting a fall in real estate prices that elderly people, like my friend’s parents, can’t sell their apartments to pay for nursing or assisted living. And they are hardly the only ones affected by the downturn. Doctors find themselves squeezed — many patients don’t have money for operations — while businesspeople sit on their hands, unwilling to make investments in so unpredictable an environment. Many college graduates, faced with a grim job market, are essentially dropping out, or “lying flat,” as it’s called in China.

Not even schoolchildren, it seems, have been spared the general despondency. As one teacher I spoke to observed, when the society is sick, the children pay the price. Too many parents know a child who has had to leave school because of depression.

Of course, for all of this the West is scapegoated — having opposed, people say, China’s rise — as is China’s other favorite enemy, Japan, whose brutal 1930s invasion and ensuing occupation of China still rankles. (One sequence of a CGI video shown in my recent Shanghai spin class featured huge coronaviruses studded with Japanese temples.)

Whoever is to blame, emigration is on the rise. According to UN figures, more than 310,000 Chinese left the country in each of the past two years, a 62 percent increase from the earlier average of around 191,000 per year over the decade through 2019. Those in Shanghai with the means to do so talk endlessly about “running away,” even to officially reviled countries like the United States.

This is not always an answer. One friend of mine has come back to China to stay, having spent six years attending graduate school in Boston, saying she missed the warmth of Chinese family life. And no one has illusions about the difficulty of getting established in another country. People in China speak of a whole new class of emigrants, women who have left high-powered careers to accompany their children to the United States early enough for them to assimilate — ideally, in middle or high school. As for the fruits of their sacrifice, it’s too early to say. Can the children really become Westerners? Will they — like me decades earlier — become the foreigners?

Things in China could change. Those “lying flat” are not asleep. They are watching and could someday rise up. But in the meantime, people in Shanghai are simply, as they put it, “xin lei” Their hearts are tired.

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