British journalist Hewitt offers a broad, newsy look at China’s changing mores in the wake of Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms.
Over the last 20 years, China has been transformed “on a scale and at a pace arguably unprecedented in human history,” asserts the author, who has traveled and lived there on and off since 1986. He calls it an “aspiration nation,” gripped with lifestyle fever as the Chinese eagerly respond to Deng’s dictum, “Let some of the people get rich first.” In breezy, magazine-friendly prose, Newsweek contributor Hewitt shares his close observation of these startling changes. Building and construction attract his particular attention; in Beijing, Shenzhen and Shanghai, he sees neighborhoods transformed overnight, dislocating massive numbers of people. The effort to throw out anything old might seem puzzling in light of China’s reverence for its ancestry, Hewitt notes, but it’s a twisted legacy of the Cultural Revolution—“permanent revolution” has morphed into “permanent renovation” as budding entrepreneurs feed the lust for an international lifestyle. When IKEA opened its first store in Beijing, 35,000 people went through it on a single Saturday. It’s not all good news. As state-run businesses were cut loose, 21 million people were made redundant between 1997 and 2000, and unemployment soared. A dismantling of the welfare state, much like what Margaret Thatcher effected in England, has created armies of “floating people.” Hewitt also explores the “half-open media” led by a newspaper group in Guangzhou and the explosion of the Internet, carefully censored by the government. While the Cultural Revolution denied their parents an education, this generation is obsessed with it, and the government’s one-child policy encourages the indulgent nurturing of precociously brilliant offspring. Hewitt delves into the sexual revolution, the plight of farmers and the shakeup in religion and ideology as perilous side effects to China’s headlong drive to create a more prosperous society.
A relevant, well-padded human-interest story by a dogged journalist.