The Chinese Dream should not be a fairytale

09 May, 2014

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By Yuxin Hou

Gu Wei was 23 years old and a student of the prestigious Boston Conservatory in the United States when she decided to drop out, move to Hong Kong and live as a street singer because her family opposed her dream of pursuing a career in pop. Poor, exhausted, harassed by the police, she finally made it when half of the four person jury, famous Chinese singers all, spontaneously joined her on the stage during her performance at The Duet, a talent show produced by Beijing TV Network. They had recognized her talent and she had "proved to everyone that I could have a future in singing and realize my dreams." Cinderella had found her crystal shoe.

Turning on the TV anywhere in China today and the number of talent shows is staggering: China’s Got Talent, Amazing Chinese, I’m a Singer, The Voice of China, Sing My Song, The Brain… the list is endless. Superficially different, all these shows have one thing in common – total nobodies from all walks of life have big dreams, come on stage and have their wildest fantasies come true. Touched by their stories, the jury will inevitably announce their success and they will enjoy the support and adoration of the audience. The slogan of China’s Got Talent says it best: ordinary people can achieve great dreams, believe in your dreams, believe in miracles. These dreams shows have become miracle mass-manufacturers that produce batch after batch of stars. Every dreamer has a different story to tell but the underdog story stays the same.

If the 12 million viewers of America’s Got Talent is considered impressive then the audience of Chinese talent shows can only be described as terrifying. The Duet, which made a star of Miss Gu, has a little over 100 million viewers nationwide, but is only the 4th most popular talent show in China. The most popular, The Voice of China, had a jaw-dropping 150 million strong audience in 2013. The long-lasting popularity of these shows amongst viewers, mainly youngsters, is a reflection of how much they believe in the miracles they hope will one day happen to them. It is also a reflection of a deeper problem – the growing income divide in a society where the less fortunate are finding it harder and harder to catch up.

Despite 30 years of remarkable growth and the lifting of more than 400 million people out of poverty, today China is still home to almost 100 million people living under its RMB 2,300 (USD400) a year national poverty line. Furthermore the economic growth of recent decades has not been equally distributed. The country’s official Gini coefficient in 2013 was 0.473, higher than both the US and India. In 2010, the richest 1% Chinese households possessed more than 40% of the entire country’s wealth. People at the bottom are increasingly alienated and less hopeful of being able to work their way to success. In China today, millions refer to themselves as Diaosi (literally, male pubic hair), street slang for pleb or more specifically, loser.

Diaosi is a declaration of powerlessness in a society where it is getting harder for most to succeed. Social mobility has been on the decline – a joint study between Nanjing Audit University and London School of Economics found that since 2000, people at the bottom of the society were more likely to stay where they when compared to 25 years ago. As the study concluded, “China has become more rigid”.

This is why diaosi has also become a statement of solidarity against the upstart rich, Tuhao, who are often perceived as being corrupt. In a divided society there’s significant tension between the diaosi and the tuhao, whose excessive resources and opportunities are felt to be blocking the way to prosperity for others. Yet every diaosi has a dream of one day being able to become a tuhao and enjoying their privileges. Lacking proper channels to move up in society, many have turned to the fairytale story of Gu Wei and others like her as the easiest way out of the rat race.

The sad reality, however, is that fairytales are a false hope.  Not everyone can be Cinderella, and believing that they can only gives rise to an over-simplified understanding of success and a neglect of what it really takes to get there. When people inevitably realize that miracles won’t fix the divide in Chinese society, the tension between the well-off will only get worse.

As for the Chinese government, it needs to once again create adequate opportunities for people at the bottom to move up in society. When people graduate from university find themselves unable to get a job, when rural migrants who have worked in cities for decades still find themselves denied urban social welfare, when people see under-qualified peers easily getting ahead because of their influential fathers, their faith in the ‘Chinese Dream’ the government has promised them quickly departs. Equality will not be achieved in a day, but inequality may prove explosive if people don’t even see any hope of change. China needs to reassure its people that the country is dedicated to narrowing the social gap and that, if they are determined, they will have a fair chance to prosper and improve their lives.  The "Chinese Dream" needs to be one an achievable one, relying on a miracle is no longer an option.