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Go East, Young Man

The Draw of Living in China

The Shanghai skyline at night.
The skyline of busy Shanghai at night.

"China is so hot right now," my companion quipped, surveying the crowded tapas bar from the comfortable heights of his 6-plus feet. The gently lit room hummed with Beijing's young and well dressed, who, drawing strength from a bottomless vat of sangria, mingled with great intent. The occasion fell under the auspices of the Young People's Happy Hour, a networking organization that tries to connect the flocks of go-getters who land every day at Beijing Capital Airport. In New York or London such an event would be too crassly artificial to merit the attention of the business-types, students, activists, artists, journalists, teachers, diplomats, architects, musicians, and writers who filled the grotto-like bar. In Beijing, however, they had turned out in droves, perhaps curious to find all the other people who, like themselves and like my tall friend, found the zeitgeist inexorably pulling them east.

China ’s major cities have drawn the best and brightest from the countryside since the days when the imperial examinations administered in Beijing could turn any educated youth into a powerful official. But in recent years it is not just Chinese youngsters streaming into Beijing, Shanghai, and elsewhere: the in-bound flight manifests read like a Who’s Who list of young high-fliers from all over the world.

Most come for business, seeking riches in China’s cheap workforce and expanding consumer class. This is particularly true in Shanghai, a city singularly devoted to making money and, after hours, spending it. Think Wall Street meets the Vegas Strip. Beijing also has its capitalists, but here they share turf with creative workers, intellectuals, and policy wonks. Together China’s leading cities are attracting talent from all over the world, boasting a gold-rush atmosphere that offers young people opportunities unavailable in the world’s more established capitals. Here I have met London investment bankers turned financial consultants, Manhattan real-estate brokers turned jewelry designers, and accountants turned video game designers, as well as novelists, programmers, and real estate developers who came to try their luck in the East.

One friend left her gallery job in New York to open an art-book design company in Beijing. After years of neglect, China’s contemporary art scene is exploding, turning Beijing’s most aesthetically derelict industrial zones into trendy display cases of brushed steel, exposed brick, and frosted glass. While most of the art filling these spaces has yet to find its footing, no one seems to have told the hordes of collectors buying it up as fast as the artists can put brush to paper. At a recent gallery talk a middle-aged French man waxed eloquent on the novelty and “Chineseness” of a small canvas of vertical blue strokes until someone noted its striking resemblance to work done in France in the 1960s.

Traditional dancers in China.

Sorting real change from the hype is a constant challenge for those riding the China wave. Observers have anointed China "The Next Big Thing," and in many ways it is. But everyone who comes here to be part of The Next Big Thing quickly discovers all the ways China falls short.

Take, for instance, the economy’s record-breaking growth. Market reforms have lifted hundreds of millions of Chinese people out of poverty, but many, many more are still waiting. For every resident of a prosperous eastern city like Shanghai or Beijing there are two peasants in the countryside wondering why they cannot have a car and a cell phone. 500 million Chinese people make less than $2 a day. Growth has also come at the expense of many social safety nets that were once taken for granted

China’s booming economy has also created the greatest environmental disaster since the Industrial Revolution. When you blow your nose in Beijing, it comes out black. As much of the world’s manufacturing has shifted to China, factories have become free of the environmental regulations in force in places like the U.S and Europe. For many years the government’s attitude was “develop first, save the environment later.” But in recent years it has realized the urgency of China’s pollution problems, which it estimates cost the country as much as 10 percent of gross domestic product per year.

But because China ’s problems are just as superlative as its opportunities, they also become an attraction. I came to Beijing in part to work with a Chinese environmental group that provides legal aid to victims of pollution. Most groups that try to enforce rights through courts are frowned upon by the government, but because of its environmental focus this organization gets away with quite a bit. They even sued the Beijing police department for failing to enforce environmental laws — and won.

Countless other foreigners are in China trying to save the world, and rightly so. The country ’s size makes it essential to any effort to control environmental problems that cross boundaries. China is now the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gasses — and today only seven Chinese people in a thousand own a car, compared to 600 out of every thousand Americans. Even what we used to think of as “local” environmental problems can’t ignore China; today one-third of the smog in Los Angeles blows across from Asia.

The young people pouring into China today to take advantage of its opportunities or to fix its problems differ from previous generations. In the past China was the sole province of Orientalists, Sinologists, Old China Hands, and a few lost romantics. They came to China because they were fascinated by its history, language, or culture, or by its quirky politics.

The professional China enthusiasts are still around today, but they have been overwhelmed by people who come to China not because it is China, but because it is the place to be. If Djibouti had 1.3 billion people and were growing at 10 percent a year, they would go there instead. Some of the new types take a liking to the place, but just as many have the opposite reaction and resent the fact that work has led them to such a noxious country. The difficulty with the world’s young and ambitious is that they are ruthlessly fickle.

Another friend came to China from Israel to work at Microsoft’s research center in the northwest of Beijing, the country’s Silicon Valley. But next month he will leave for a better job in Seattle. This is a common pattern. In my first two months in Beijing I made, grew attached to, and bid farewell to no fewer than three close friends. Young people the world over are forever bouncing about, but in China the timeframe is uniquely compressed. Six months in Beijing makes you an old-timer. Over a year and you might as well turn in your passport.

All this instability makes for a hyperactive social life as people constantly arrive, seek out friends, see those friends leave, and look for new friends. Dating is even more difficult, if not impossible. Most couples here found each other elsewhere and came as a package.

That said, a good number of young foreigners do find themselves local boyfriends or — more often — girlfriends, though most spend more time discussing this possibility than experiencing it. The chance for mutual language practice is one of the practical considerations reinforcing romance in such relationships, as is the belief among many Chinese young people that foreigners make for rich and attention grabbing significant others, even spouses. However, the days are largely gone when a foreigner’s average but Caucasian looks could get him his choice of Chinese beauties — though one still occasionally finds “flowers stuck in cow flops” as the Chinese say.

Young locals ’ interest in their expatriate peers extends beyond romance, however. As the hypercompetitive only-children of a rising power, Chinese young people feel entitled and determined to lead the good life their parents’ couldn’t even imagine. More often than not this goal is measured by the newness of one’s cell phone, the amount of Gucci in one’s closet, and one’s ability to quaff Chivas Regal mixed with green tea at flashy clubs. And while many Chinese young people are patriotic to a fault—“I could never have a Japanese friend,” one told me, citing World War II — they crave cool things from abroad. So for many Chinese young people, a good life means living, or at least consuming, like all their new foreign neighbors.

Politics is rarely a concern. The students who sought to bring the Communist Party to its knees during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests have either sunken in despair or, more commonly, become wealthy businessmen. Instead of protesting they have decided to follow former leader Deng Xiaoping ’s maxim, “to get rich is glorious.” The government believes that China’s youth won’t be able to stir up trouble if they’re busy trying to land a good job at a foreign firm or save up for a flashy watch — and so far the bet has paid off.

Still, more reflective young Chinese people and their parents worry that making money and buying things is an unsustainable national ideology over the long term. Like all booms, China’s will eventually go bust. And while no one doubts the country’s upward trajectory over the long term, the challenges of satisfying the rural poor and the urban elite in a closed political system with mounting social and environmental problems mean that China’s rise will come in fits and starts.

As the glimmer fades, some of the young strivers and their successors will follow the next big trend — India, perhaps. But for now China is basking in the glow of a rare concentration of bright young people, making it one of the most exciting places to be in the world. As my friend said — China, so hot right now.

Related Topics
Living in China: Expatriate Resources

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