How fast is China changing? Hui (pictured here) is changing very fast indeed.
On his retirement, Hui (not his real name) was entitled to an apartment. This apartment had several advantages. It was large. It was part of his retirement package and really inexpensive. Most important, it was close to his family and his grandson.
That’s why he rejected it.
I was sitting in his tiny, chilly living room. Jetlagged, disoriented, and freezing, I was asking "slow pitch" questions in the hope of slow pitch answers. Something I could hang on to. Dream on, Grant. This is China.
"So why didn’t you want to live close to your grandson?" I bleated.
"I don’t want to be a wise old man," he explained.
Hui said he did not wish to be stuffed into the conventional notions that await the elderly. He was, he said, curious about retirement without "retirement." He was happy to be a "friend" to his grandson. He just didn’t want to have to be his "grandfather."
Who knows what we are looking at here? I am no China expert. (I do labor to make this clear to my clients but they send me anyhow.) It looks like the virus of individualism. But it cannot be that this man one day sat up in bed and said, "that’s it. From now on, I will define myself for my own purposes, by my own efforts. Damn the stereotypes." More probably, this is an idea and an inventiveness that has ancient, revolutionary, Western, and contemporary origins in China.
If there are other Huis, and I think there have to be, China is not the great, lumbering monolith so beloved by the Western press. It is 1.4 billion people, some of whom are prepared to step out of Chineseness into something else. Or perhaps their Chineseness has a Heraclitian quality. In any case, this vast body politic appears to have a difference virus.
Who knows? Not me. But here is something else that’s American about the Chinese experiment. In addition to the adaptive powers noted yesterday, there is a willingness to engage in "identity improv." This is, as we know, a fount of cultural innovation, creating, as it does, an inducement and materials for others who might wish to engage in self transformation, too.
People who engage in self transformation are pretty good at every kind of innovation. They rush to the theatre, to fiction, to poetry, as archaeologies of what the self might hold, as weather reports on new selves rolling across the continent (high pressure zones and all), as prognostications of what’s next (retirement without retirement, say).
They are also pretty good at the innovations of a dynamic marketplace. Certain national competitors to the American experiment have borrowed liberally, and finally too much. And of course the Chinese now borrow shamelessly themselves. But if all real creativity is finally the same act, contributing to a common pool, in the enablement of a collective frame of mind, then we may suppose (if this example is not completely unreliable and of course it might be), that the Chinese are well prepared for a free wheeling and dynamic form of capitalism.
There are lots of questions here. But here’s one: will China ever be as disintermediated as the US? As it stands, the US has something like a cultural FedEx up and running. This means that almost any innovation produced by American culture can find its way to almost any recipient. (This system is not perfect and it is still being constructed, to be sure.) China is a place that is still massively mediated, not least by the remaining presumption of a ruling party that it knows best. We can imagine a system in which there is plenty of innovation taking place, but most of it finally squeezed out or kept out by the distribution system. A Shakespeare emerges in a northern province and is never given a "shot" at the Beijing theater. Or, much worse, he finds his way to Beijing but he is excluded by standing elites and cliques. Or, somewhat last grandly, Hui "reinvents" grandparenthood but his innovations die with him.
This is of course a job for anthropologists and other social scientists. The bad news here is that many of them are so deeply provincial and so badly out of touch with the real structural properties of American capitalism they are pretty much disqualified from the intelligent treatment of capitalism as it is being reinvented for the 21st century. (I just had to get that shot in. It’s the nicotine deficit talking, I’m quite sure of it.)