Getting Rich First: Life in a Changing China – Duncan Hewitt

There were fears of serious civil unrest, and in a number of cases the leaders of such protests were arrested and detained.
Still, millions of people continued to lose their jobs around the country – official figures, though hard to confirm, gave at least some sense of the extraordinary scale of what was happening: Some 21 million people made redundant from state enterprises between 1997 and 2000, 12 million of them in 1998 alone.

A functional, yet completely fascinating look at China’s progression since the 1980’s, Getting Rich First blew my mind with the sheer scale of, well of pretty much everything that is happening in this ancient country hurtling like an express train into modernity, if not quite as an open modernity as might be hoped.  To start with, the numbers are bigger, in England our employment figures hover around one, to two million, or thereabouts, it increases or decreases in the thousands, or tens of thousands.  I couldn’t quite get my head around the quote at the head of this review, 12 million people made redundant from state enterprises in 1998 alone. I couldn’t really put it into context, and these staggering figures are all the way through the book.

It’s not just the figures, Hewitt includes a wealth of personal stories in this, some poignant, some successful, many less so.  What they do is paint a picture of a Government, and society, struggling to keep up with the pace of change it is feverishly trying to expedite.  For a society as ancient and venerable as the Chinese, there is a seeming lack of concern about knocking down old buildings, juxtaposed with their thousands of years of heritage. As home ownership becomes more important, more space is needed to build houses, stretching further from the centre of the cities and razing to the ground old properties (many of which are no longer suitable for inhabiting, but are still called home to a few). Indeed, Jeffrey Wong, in one of my favourite parts, started buying old buildings and relocating them brick by brick to his estates so they can be preserved.

That is just one element, Hewitt covers the first Ikea and the worlds largest B&Q as the middle class China learns how to DIY in their new homes.  It is a society that now has aspirations, has an exploding middle class that expects all the trappings with their status such as consumer rights, an open media and quality educatoin. Meanwhile the country folk, struggling for healthcare and support on their farms, are emigrating to the cities in their millions, where they face exploitation and a lack of rights from a social system struggling to keep up with the pace of change around it.

The young people are more self aware and self interested than the previous generation, they are pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable to their elders further and further, religion is starting to blossom, in some cases offering crucial social support, don’t mention falun gong though.  As he works through China’s society and culture and how it is changing, it seems, to me anyway, that something of a realisation slowly dawns (it’s a big book, there is no rush).

It seems as if the Government, cautiously taking it’s feet of the brakes, is now struggling to regain control.  Time and again the Government relaxes the laws or rules, but then tries to reign them in, or control them in a different way.  What it seems like it hasn’t realised is that it is seriously going to struggle to have a free market, with free enterprise, without a free society. To me, by rolling down the path it has taken, the leadership in China must adapt or potentially face a long slow decline into irrelevance.  Whether this is right or not is neither here nor there, interestingly there are a few times in the book where people comment that it was better under the Chairman, and certainly, not everyone in China is on this express to riches and for the tales of success, there are many, many tales of struggles.

Getting Rich First has given me an interesting glimpse into what is an incredible moment in history, as China rushes with abandonment into a new stage of it’s life, trying to charge through decades of change in a number of years, and although it offers a snapshot, the problem with this book is this: It was published in 2007, and is probably, already completely out of date.

Such developments are still on a relatively small scale, but they are a sign that wahtever the official ideological reservations about allowing religion a wider role in society, the pressing nature of many social problems means that this is starting to happen anyway. In poor rural areas, too, a lack of funding and the urgent desire for development have encouraged some local governments to accept donations from Christian organisations.


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