Monday, 25 May 2009

37 - 'Getting Rich First - Life in a Changing China' by Duncan Hewitt

As you may have noticed, I haven't really reviewed a lot of non-fiction in my little blog. There are two main reasons for that:

1) With my work and studies, I read a lot of journals and articles anyway.

2) I have very little reading time and a lot of fiction I want to read!

However, I do make the occasional exception, and 'Getting Rich First - Life in a Changing China' is one of them. Written by a former BBC World journalist, who has lived in China for over twenty years, this fascinating book gives a broad overview of contemporary life in the world's most populous nation. From urban growth to rural decay, from big business to fine art, the book's thirteen chapters each take one area of Chinese life and attempt to make sense of sky-high economic growth in a communist regime.

The topic of China is an interesting one, both personally and for my adopted homeland. Trade with China, especially in the area of natural resources, is one of the most important factors in staving off the worst of the Global Financial Crisis here in Australia, and our (fairly) new Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd (hands up who knew that; I can hear the embarrassed silence from here...), is a bonafide Sinophile, having studied Chinese at university and lived and worked in China before his political career reached such dizzy heights (don't laugh. Being Prime Minister of Australia is a serious job. Who do you think tells all the kangaroos where to go?). Just as Japanese real estate investment was the talk of the town a few decades ago, tales of takeover bids by Chinese companies are now regular fodder for newspapers down under.

I have slightly less of a background regarding China, never having been there and not being able to produce more than a few mumbled expressions ('Ni Hao' and 'Xie Xie' probably won't get me very far with anyone more fluent than a six-month old baby. Or a dog.). However, in my work in international education, China is an ever-present factor. The majority of the students at my college come from mainland China, and, as is the case with most Australian higher education institutes, these full-fee paying students are responsible for providing the college with funds which the government is less than keen on providing. In fact, providing higher education for overseas students is one of the top few Australian export industries (I feel so proud that I'm doing my bit for the country).

Education is a major topic in this book, and Hewitt details the possibilities and strains brought about by a freedom of choice. The children of many wealthier Chinese families, fearing the stress of punishing high school exams and dubious about the effectiveness of local teaching methodology, now have the possibility of jetting overseas to get their tertiary (and, in some cases, secondary) education. Of course, this involves substantial costs, and very few families can even consider this option, but the expense is not the only issue here. The book touches on the problems these exported students face in studying at a young age in a different culture, and, unfortunately, I see this in my role as a Learning Adviser on a regular basis. Many young Chinese students, sent over (often alone) to a country with a different language and culture, are simply not mature enough to cope with the style of independent learning required in the west and retreat into their shells, often failing to acknowledge the offers of assistance from their school or college until it is too late.

While this is unfortunate, some people could only dream of being in a position to be able to mess up their education in this way. Many Chinese children, especially in the countryside, do not even have access to a decent education, and this is also true for the children of economic migrants who flee the countryside for the giant cities of the eastern seaboard. Being registered in their home town, these new urban dwellers have no right to send their children to city schools and often face the choice between sending their children to sub-standard unofficial schools in the city or sending them back to their home town to live with their grandparents. Even if these children make it through a full course of education, the chances of obtaining one of the few places in a top university are extremely slight.

The most surprising topic laid bare in this book is the huge discrepancy in the treatment of urban residents and those who leave the countryside to join them in the big cities. Not only do country dwellers receive less welfare than their urban counterparts, but when they rush to the big city to join them, they are not eligible for even the little state help that remains from the good old days of true communism. This disparity in the treatment of the two groups resembles the way immigrants are treated in other countries; in fact, in a country the size of China, this is pretty much what they are (and, apparently, the locals can have the same attitudes towards the newcomers that many people can display towards foreigners).

This book is a great introduction for anyone with an interest in the country, and I don't really have the space (or the energy) to go into all the topics here now, but one last area I'd like to touch on is the media. The internet has made things a little more transparent despite the best efforts of the Chinese government to keep out information not considered 'necessary' for their citizens; however, one school of thought has it that by allowing a small degree of latitude, the government is able to concentrate on hiding more controversial topics. This was certainly borne out in a recent conversation at lunch with a friend of mine, a largely apolitical Chinese student who recently graduated from a Masters course at an Australian university. I'd read an article the previous week about the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown and the reaction to it by politicians and Chinese students in Australia, and (with a little caution) I told him about the news story and asked if he knew much about it. His reply?

He'd never heard of it.