Howard W. French
To many people who follow events in China closely, two announcements made in the past month by the Chinese government seemed like reasonably foreseeable developments, if not entirely predictable in their timing or details.
In the first, Beijing said that it was committed to combating the grueling common workplace culture known as 996, which stands for 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week. Placing such heavy demands of self-sacrifice for the benefit of corporations was unhealthy for society, the state concluded, in a belated judgment that follows more than a generation of high-speed growth characterized by utter domination of workers by the managerial class. In fact, the problem is so big that, now that it has been officially recognized, Chinese media have been able to frame the need for more unstructured, personal time as all but a matter of human rights. And although it might sound ironic for the world’s largest socialist society, one of the remedies, or reforms, that has been mooted has hinted at breaking another taboo: allowing trade unions to actually organize directly on behalf of their members.
The other big announcement, or rather cluster of announcements, has involved reining in China’s massive entertainment and leisure industry, as well as the culture that surrounds it. Here, in rapid succession, we have seen the state inveigh against what it perceives as effeminate male characters, or what it has called “sissies,” on TV; attempt to sharply regulate the use of electronic games by minors; and effectively blacklist major stars for apparently not projecting the “right” image to their followers.
Moves like these would be remarkable enough under almost any circumstances in China. But coming as they do in the very same season, they give dramatic demonstration to a three-way struggle within the country whose outcome will go far in defining the society over the next decade or two, and one in which the competing underlying interests seem largely irreconcilable.
We are long accustomed to seeing culture wars play out in the United States, a country whose social cohesion is as frayed today as it has been in recent memory. On the evidence of moves like this, though, China is in the early stages of a cultural war of its own. This, to be clear, is not a reference to the supposed but mistaken idea some have promoted lately that Xi Jinping’s China is now in the early phases of a renewed Cultural Revolution, the name for the decade of officially promoted ideological struggle and upheaval that began in 1966, late in the rule of Mao Zedong. The current battle lines have little to do with old-fashioned doctrinal ideology, and none of the parties involved have militant struggle in mind. If anything, despite this, the stakes may be even more consequential.
The first move, to restore work-life balance, reflects the desperate need of the Chinese Communist Party and state to increase fertility, which in a practical sense means getting young people to marry at higher rates and earlier, and most of all to begin having substantially more children than in the recent past. I won’t go deeply into the details of China’s population problems, which I have written about abundantly here and elsewhere, except to say that the country is in the early stages of a demographic decline that will be staggering in speed and scale if it is not reversed. In the course of the lifespan of many readers of this column, China will become one of the oldest societies on earth, and 50 years from now its overall population will have shrunk by as much as 250 million people.
For now, the leadership still avoids talking about the implications of this in very blunt terms, but for many serious analysts of global economics, China’s population shift will be dramatic enough to prevent the country from becoming the world’s largest economy. Even if it achieves this long-hoped-for goal, it will only be able to retain the honor for a brief moment in time, perhaps a handful of years.
The recent announcements demonstrate a three-way struggle within China whose outcome will go far in defining its society over the next decade or two.
No wealthy society of any size has figured out how to reverse what is now a secular, nearly worldwide trend of demographic aging, so far largely concentrated in the Global North. For China, an additional challenge comes from the fact that it is not yet a wealthy country, at least in per capita terms; in fact, far from it. Rich countries have plowed money into free or heavily subsidized day care, tax incentives and material incentives, like free cars or even assistance with housing, to promote childbearing, but with little dramatic effect on fertility rates.
Confronted with such challenges, one could do worse than to imagine two competing factions of the Chinese leadership and government policymaking apparatus engaged like wrestlers under a tight and heavy canvas, giving only a general and muffled sense of their combat, rather than a clear view of the blow by blow. What seems relatively certain at this point, though, is that one side in this struggle would like to pursue the rich-country route, involving subsidies and incentives aimed at increasing fertility, along with a general relaxation of the culture of production. Improving overall quality of life via more and better recreation, leisure and self-fulfillment, they believe, is essential to national economic success in the future.
Also grappling under that heavy canvas, though, is another wrestler who seems to take a very different view of these questions. This faction’s more Spartan notions can be perceived in the second set of moves we have seen in the last month or so. The key to making China richer and stronger, they believe, is for the state to become more deeply involved in family values: getting boys and girls, women and men, to conform more closely to old-fashioned ideas about gender roles. Men, in other words, should be more “masculine,” in the almost square-jawed, mid-20th century Western sense, and women should, just as equally, be women as some imagine them to have been in the not-so-distant past, meaning pliant, accepting and, ultimately, obligingly maternal.
One can expect a lot more from this side in the ongoing policy struggle in the months and years ahead, with young men being encouraged to cast aside the toys—and video games—of their youth and to pursue women romantically and sexually, albeit firmly within the confines of the nuclear family, and women being urged to embrace traditional ideas of femininity and to pair up and settle down quickly. Alongside such imperatives will come frequent promptings for the young to devote themselves to professions that the Chinese state sees as critical to its competitive future—engineering and the sciences, in particular. And more and more explicitly, they will be told that because the fortunes of the country depend on it, this is a matter of patriotic duty.
As stated at the outset, there is a third protagonist here, and whatever the state might desire, it may eventually prove decisive. That is the Chinese populace itself, and especially the country’s still new, but impressively broadening middle class. Are they susceptible to old-fashioned appeals to patriotic duty above, say, trends toward greater consumption, which even the Chinese government says is key to future growth? Can they be deterred from the prioritization of what middle-class people seem to crave wherever they can be found: self-fulfillment, meaning the pursuit of individual and highly personal dreams? We obviously don’t know the answer, but things like skiing and fitness and foreign travel and language learning, as well as wine and book clubs and myriad other hobbies, to say nothing of an attachment to plain-old “down time,” have already become extremely popular in the country among middle-class people. It’s not unreasonable to imagine that many of them will be unwilling to forego pursuits like these in order to produce more children for the state and its abstract but coldly impersonal goals.
It must be said that official China has seen some aspects of this challenge coming for a very long time, but it has misinterpreted them. From the moment that the country’s turn to managed capitalism began in the reform and opening era in 1978, leaders in Beijing have been warning that with greater contact with the rest of the world, influences that are inimical to Chinese-style, one-party rule that needed to be combatted and contained would creep in like mosquitoes and houseflies. They were called spiritual pollution, in a phrase made popular by Deng Xiaoping. As Rush Doshi, now an adviser to U.S. President Joe Biden, writes in his new book, “The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order,” the concept of spiritual pollution has had a long and vigorous afterlife. In 2000, Jiang Zemin, the successor of Deng’s successor, was still warning, “Following the expansion of opening up, the development of internet culture, and especially China’s accession to the WTO, bourgeoisie ideological infiltration and the challenge of cultural erosion caused by various decadent ideologies … will become more important … and be a major test for us for a long time.”
China’s long-standing wariness about “contamination” from the outside, though, has mostly been misplaced. The changes currently underway are the classical and near-universal effects of rising and broadening prosperity. People with enough money to engage in discretionary spending inevitably develop a profoundly personal and individual sense of how to enjoy the fruits of their labor, and this changes their relationship to work, to the state and to much else besides.
China need not have looked further than the experience of its neighbor, Japan, for a foretaste. Long after that country’s remarkable postwar reconstruction and resurgence in the 1950s and early 1960s, prime ministers there continued to promote the pursuit of GDP growth as an end in itself, meant to be prioritized and celebrated by all Japanese. Beginning in the 1970s, though, and accelerating steadily thereafter, Japan became a lifestyle-focused country. By the time I moved there in the late 1990s, karoshi—or working oneself to physical ruin on behalf of company or nation—had come to be literally seen as a kind of illness and scourge. Few, today, know and appreciate the fine arts of leisure better than the Japanese, and if China’s middle classes continue to grow, they will too.
You can follow him on Twitter at @hofrench.