Monday, July 11, 2005

Consequences of Wealth in China

A good article from the front page of today's LA Times discusses the unintended consequences of China's rapidly-expanding economy: psychological pressure on young professionals to succeed and and consume more goods.

Experts say the very forces that provide unprecedented opportunity for young people in the new China are also delivering unprecedented stress, particularly though not exclusively in urban areas. Common among young Chinese is a feeling that they're living in a once-in-a-few-centuries era when dynasties topple and individual fortunes are made — and that they're missing out.

"The whole society is impatient, especially the young people," said Zhou Xiaozheng, a professor of sociology at People's University in Beijing. "President Hu Jintao said recently we Chinese must be modest and cautious and avoid arrogance. Of course, that means we're none of these things."

Though pressure to do well is evident almost everywhere in the world, experts say it's greater in China in part because people here think the nation has arrived late to the global economic party and needs to make up for lost time. Catching up economically with rich neighbors such as Japan and South Korea is seen as a way of "regaining" China's rightful place on the international stage.

Insecurity among young professionals, often manifest in frenzied job-hopping, is fueled by media coverage of the super-rich, such as online-game mogul Chen Tianqiao, worth an estimated $1.05 billion at age 31. Or Huang Guangyu, founder of electronic retailer GoMe, estimated to be worth $1.3 billion at 35. Or thirtysomething Ding Lei of Internet portal NetEase, at $668 million.

By most measures, Wang Sujun is doing well. The 32-year-old has a master's degree from Peking University, China's Harvard, and a prestigious job with Beijing Mobile, a major telecommunications company. He says he's happily married and in March welcomed the arrival of a healthy daughter, Zizuo. In a country where the average annual salary is less than $1,000, he's making more than 11 times that much.

But Wang doesn't feel successful.

"Life is so stressful, I feel enormous pressure on my shoulders all the time," he said, his words tumbling out in a series of rapid bursts. "If I could only do better somehow, I might become rich and happy."

When he meets with his three best friends, they talk about what they need to be more successful. Wang wants more money, and he worries that his peers have better jobs, nicer apartments, fancier cars.

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