There is a long history in Western culture of romanticizing "the Orient," especially China, because of its distance, difference and sheer size. In the modern era, the captains of European and American industry have salivated over the prospect of reaching China's vast markets, and it is easy for foreigners visiting Shanghai or Beijing to be overawed by the masses of humanity and forests of building cranes stretching to the horizon. The proliferation of high-end shops and well-heeled yuppies reflect the rapid accumulation of wealth in certain sectors. But looks can be deceiving.
China's ritzy urban scene is just part of a larger society which remains burdened with serious social problems -- some of which are getting worse.
Recently, a number of articles penned by journalists visiting China for the Shanghai Expo have echoed all the romantic, idealized notions about China's rise as a world economic power, and the role of the Chinese consumer in this achievement. For example, a fashion reporter blogs in The New York Times: "Of course, you see virtually every big-name brand represented here -- from Burberry to Bugatti -- and many of the fashion and jewelry companies now have several locations in Beijing alone. And despite prices that are roughly 40% higher than they would be for the same handbag or dress in Paris or New York, Chinese consumers are shopping."
There is often a particular interest in China's young consumers, with their status-conscious, cosmopolitan tastes. A recent article in Ad Age, titled, "Oh, To Be a Millennial in China," reads: "To be a millennial in China is to never have known what a recession looks like. It's to have known only economic expansion and rapid, accelerating change. It's to have learned English in school and accessed the world via the Internet."
But these rosy impressions of China, based on a small sampling of city life, present a one-sided view of a huge and increasingly divided country.
First, they neglect to mention that less than half of China's population -- 43% in 2008 -- currently lives in urban areas, compared to 79% in Japan, according to the United Nations, and 70% in the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The majority of China's 1.3 billion people -- 57%, or about 740 million Chinese -- still live in the countryside.
This is literally a different world, according to a group of Chinese economists employed by state universities. They write: "China seems to have defined itself as two nations living within the same borders." 135 million people, over 10% of the Chinese population, are living on less than a dollar a day -- most of them in rural areas -- and even the central government concedes that the income disparity between rural and urban populations is growing at an alarming rate.
Moreover, the proportion of rural to urban incomes sank from an average 45% in 1989 to 31% in 2003, and continues to decline. Over 60% of rural households don't have flush toilets; meanwhile, 6% of rural villages aren't connected to the national road system, and 2% don't have electricity. 150 million rural households don't have enough fuel to keep warm in the winter.
As in America, young people are disproportionately affected by poverty in China -- but the degree of deprivation is much greater. While some lucky "millennials" might lead a pleasant existence in China's cities, 70% of Chinese children live in impoverished rural areas. Nor is the situation getting any better, as government spending is skewed toward urban areas driving economic growth.
For example, 77% of the country's educational expenditures go to urban residents, even though they comprise less than half the population. 15% of China's rural children under the age of five suffer from stunted growth due to malnutrition, according to the World Health Organization.
Over the last two decades, approximately 150 million Chinese peasants have moved from rural areas to cities in search of work, but the situation isn't much better -- and again, young people bear the brunt. Approximately 20 million Chinese children (10% of the under-16 population) are illegally employed in manufacturing, working long hours in brutal conditions for little pay -- often 12-14 hours a day for less than $0.50 per hour.
Chinese newspapers have uncovered a number of schemes in which urban primary school administrators hire out students as sweatshop labor, while the children of poor rural migrants, who can't attend school in urban areas, are bought and sold in the streets as chattel. Female children of rural migrants are often coerced into working as prostitutes.
Nor are these the only problems facing Chinese youth.
Continuing poverty in urban areas has led to an increase in crime. In Shanghai, the proportion of young migrants from rural areas who have been arrested for a crime jumped from 40% in 2002 to 70% in 2005. Another source of social instability is the growing gender imbalance in the Chinese population, resulting from China's one-child policy and patriarchal society, which prompts many parents to abort female fetuses.
According to one government estimate, by 2020, there may be as many as 24 million young men who won't be able to find brides and start families. Since the marriage market will naturally favor better-off men, this will create an urban underclass of (or tens of millions) of rootless, alienated males -- a ticking time bomb in terms of crime and urban disorder.
In short, maybe being a Chinese millennial isn't all it's cracked up to be.