I could have been talking to a young British, American or Aussie guy in the early 2000s, the things he said were so familiar to me : exactly the same aspirations - and frustrations. Just a couple of years ago this is what David, a Chinese producer, said to me…
“My folks have bought a house in Hainan (the equivalent of Florida or Hawaii, I’d say) and the property value doubled inside a year!” David was up to date on the per-square-metre real estate values across China and was breathless with incredulity. “Ordinary South City* apartments are beyond me now - $2,400 a month”.
“My folks have done well, but so well that I don’t think I can ever catch up!”
David was then about 28 years of age.
As it stands, millennials (folks born between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s) in China are twice as likely as Britons or Americans to own their own property. However, that’s a proportion likely to fall.
In the North of China*, Eric felt the same as David.
“We work so hard… Seem to get to an OK level… But then get stuck. It seems unfair sometimes. Pupils are pushed so hard - you cram and cram to get the best results… But where are the rewards?
“Seven million people pass their exams every year - the competition for the best schools is intense. And then it’s the same scramble for decent jobs. All your money goes on accommodation and paying back the University fees.” **
I think this is going to prove a big stumbling block for China’s newly announced policy of allowing parents to have three children per family. Up from two. And up from the One Child Policy which ended in 2016.
Even just marrying is an increasingly expensive business. Chinese families often still pay dowries - payments from groom to bride to prove their suitability and in token of her financial independence after marrying.
In Eric’s rural village, it had become customary to pay $12,000 to his sweetheart. He was lucky. In a neighbouring town the figure was $21,000. There’s supply and demand as a factor here too : China has an average of 114 men vying for the attention of every 100 women.
| || |
The cost of a marriage ceremony has gone up in recent years of course. There’s been something of an arms-race in the kind of spectacle that you put on for your children…
We saw the atrium of the Sheraton in Guilin filled with a stage set for one lucky couple. I’ve been involved in less impressive film award galas - or even Queen Elizabeth’s jubilees!
And you can’t walk along the Bund in Shanghai without bumping into photographers and film crews capturing the magic moment of matrimony - weeks before the event - accompanied by make-up artist and a lighting rig.
Watch out for the groom on the left in one of these snaps - he’s clearly had enough of his shoot outside the Chanel shop! Take a closer look, and there's a third couple just along the pavement from him...
As in many developed countries, youngsters are getting more interested in their personal lifestyles - they are getting less interested in having large families
Here’s a revealing quote seen on the social media service Weibo : “Don’t you know most young people already find it so exhausting to take care of themselves?”
| || |
Eric actually has two siblings.
He grew up in the countryside, where the authorities have traditionally been a bit more relaxed about enforcing the One Child Policy. Extra labour for farming was useful too.
And it may be that the gap widens between the urban young (in their expensive cities) and their country cousins.
And if it's a pyramid selling scheme, the pyramid is inverted. These charts show how the population of China has aged since the 1950s. There are now proportionally very many more elderly people relying on the labours of the youngest generations.
For those guys at the top to be comfortable, thousands have to join at the bottom, and work hard, passing up their wealth.
Many Chinese youngsters question whether they can afford - or want - to be a part of it.
| || |
A note on Chinese/Western names.
Eric and David are not the names they were born with, but they chose them, to make it easier for contact with Westerners. It may also be a way of preserving a certain reserve, I think. At their different schools both David and Eric were shown a whiteboard full of Anglo-Saxon names by their teacher one day, and they were asked to pick one. Simple as that.
| || |
We were forced to admit that indeed, Eric is best known as the first name of an veteran comic actor who played (very well) a rather feckless man.
Eric the Younger was a little crestfallen!
* I'm not mentioning the home towns of David and Eric, one in the South West, and one in the North West, in order to avoid embarrassing them.
** University fees are about the European continental level - $700 a term.