The dashing of youthful expectations of open-ended wealth and security for everyone with a college degree is highly combustible when combined with a popping real estate bubble and systemic corruption.
Those enamored of China's ability to build empty apartments, empty malls and empty train stations are missing the big story, which is China's boom is unraveling one person and one trade at a time. While the production of new subway systems and empty cities is definitely impressive, those focusing on capital projects are missing the erosion of faith in the China Boom story and the erosion of the foundations of the Boom Story: foreign direct investment, shadow banking, the real estate bubble and a central planning-dominated economy.
A growing segment of Chinese society now not only yearns to be well clothed and well fed but also feels a keen desire for truth, meaning, and spiritual fulfillment.Although Osnos does not explore it in depth, his book also suggests a link between many Chinese citizens’ quest for meaning and a set of gnawing worries churning beneath the frothy good times. The search for dignity is no mere embrace of New Age positivity.
It also reflects the fears and frustrations of a society laden with systemic risks: environmental devastation, bursting economic bubbles, the collapse of institutions hollowed out by corruption. Each of those threats has the potential to dramatically alter China’s course in unpredictable ways. The growing awareness among Chinese citizens of their society’s fragility has yet to translate into an overt political sentiment. But if and when that happens, it will come as a rude, and potentially earthshaking, shock to the ruling regime.
Yet for several years in a row now, the average starting salary of a college graduate in China has been less than that of an entry-level factory worker. Of course, after their families have sacrificed and poured their meager resources into the pursuit of an education, most college students find the thought of settling for blue-collar work after graduation inconceivable. In their desperate search for office jobs, graduates from rural towns and small cities congregate in cramped apartments and boarding houses in China’s wealthy coastal cities: “the ant tribe,” the Chinese call them.
Perhaps even more frustrating to China’s young and ambitious is a sense that the golden years of opportunity have already passed them by -- the impression that, in Osnos’ words, China’s boom was “a train with a limited number of seats.”
Increasingly, a young person’s success depends on his or her parents’ connections, and one can find considerable vitriol directed against the so-called second-generation rich (fuerdai) when stories of them crashing Ferraris and enjoying $12,000 dinners circulate online.