The Peony Blossom, or, What do Uber, strippers, and locusts have in common?
China is changing. Like tectonically changing. I usually write a post like this every year or so, to update you on the visible and sometimes superficial cultural changes happening. But this year they are less about the accessories of change, the rice cookers, designer hand bags and iPhones, and more dramatically, about the foundational, fundamental cultural and economic shifts of that change.
Uber is in China. So are many other ride sharing apps. I took my first Uber ride in Guangzhou this spring. It was fabulous. The fact that these services are so ubiquitous is underpinned by the fact that there are cars. So many cars. New cars. Fancy cars, nice cars, modern and well built cars. Even 10 years ago, engineering and access to well built machinery was rare at best. In the last 5 years, quality engineering could be purchased, but at an incredibly high price. Today, well built VWs, BMWs, Hondas, Camrys, and especially Audis are so 2014. There is so much traffic, it takes at least 20 minutes longer to get anywhere by car in Guangzhou now. Your fastest and cheapest way to get anywhere is the metro. I have friends who bought a condo last year and I was floored that they were able to buy a beautiful two bedroom apartment in Guangzhou, I can't even imagine how much it cost. A ballpark guess would be about 500 - 600k USD. And this year they bought a Volvo! Cars are taxed heavily and I was told a car of that quality runs about 110k USD. And these are a middle class couple with one child, perfectly normal everyday and really really nice folks. And yet their standard of living was almost unimaginable 10 years ago. They are comfortable, happy, they travel and are homeowners. While there is of course still poverty, illiteracy, and social services that are needed-especially in rural areas of China, these facts are true of almost every country and do not come close to defining China. China's economy is, in my opinion, stronger than many Chinese people believe. They have lived with so little and felt so humbled for so long, it's difficult for them to finally believe they have a role on the world stage. And their economic position is much stronger than anyone in the West, and particularly the US, believes. We seriously underestimate the Chinese consumer economy and the undeniable strength of the Chinese middle class.
And the Chinese cultural need to meet the perception of middle class stability and disposable income associated with that class, has bubbled up in interesting ways. Recently, there were reports of crackdowns at funerals for illegal stripper shows. Now, why would you want a stripper at a funeral? In Chinese tradition, the more people who attend a funeral, the more prestige is outwardly shown. So a crowd is a symbol of status. Now a stripper isn't the classiest solution to this issue, but it is a practical, slightly silly and relatively inexpensive and highly effective way to get from point A to point B. And that, that is Chinese.
And now we come to "l'affaire" Locust. Locust is a derogatory term used by Hong Kong residents to refer to "mainlanders" - mainland Chinese, usually rural, i.e. not from Shanghai, Beijing or Guangzhou, who visit Hong Kong as tourists, and currently, as shoppers. The term is rude, and it's meant to be. They are derided in comic strips, subjected to protests and public ridicule where Hong Kongers dress up as mainlanders and mock their speech and mannerisms. There is palpable anger directed towards mainlanders. While you'd think their boost to the local economy would be desired or appreciated, and their lack of sophistication overlooked, instead, the lack of shared cultural norms and lack of proficiency in Mandarin that mainland visitors exhibit has the very proper and culturally conservative and proud Hong Kongers outraged. When mainlanders help their babies or small children use the street as a toilet they are photographed and shamed on social media, when mainlanders are pushy (and I mean literally they roughly push you aside to maneuver past you), they are yelled at, when mainlanders use tourist visas to come shopping but don't leave a beneficial cultural impact on the city or are perceived to make no attempt to integrate with Hong Kong's cultural norms, they are ridiculed.
I think it will be many years, and possibly even a generation before mainlanders have a better reputation. As Chinese people under 30 acclimate to a global economy their government already participates in, as they travel and send their children to private English school, as they are exposed to other cultures and other ideas. As they are exposed to social media, and in particular, global news; and as it gets harder and harder to censor that information, China's government will loosen her grip and let her people and culture blossom into, I think, a spectacular and elegant sight to behold.