China Views: The Cusp of Change

            The evidence of progress and prosperity abound in Guangzhou, the largest city in SE China and our home for the spring semester.  Construction cranes sprout in the remaining gaps of an urban skyline dominated by lofty steel and glass structures that look down on city streets coated with traffic jams like so much jelly on toast.  China boasts more millionaires and billionaires than any other country on earth.  While it is not true that “Everyone in China is rich”, sometimes it can begin to feel that way.  Until, that is, you look more closely.

            Here is a glimpse of what life is like for many up-and-coming Chinese today.

            Sally (pseudonym) is pretty, young, vivacious, and vocal.  She enjoys a good time and a good conversation.  As a university graduate in biology, with above average intelligence and English skills, she seemed assured of joining the ranks of the well-off, if not the uber-rich.  However, it is not turning out that way. . .at least not yet.

            You see, Sally is a first-generation-off-the-farm product of an educational system that has traditionally rewarded memorization and hard-work.  Imagination and personal creativity do not sprout easily from such stern soil.

            As such, she is perched on the cusp of watershed changes in China.  At one time, not too long ago, a newly minted PhD, like herself, could look forward to a life of relative comfort and ease as an employee in a government-related enterprise, where the challenges would be modest, and the rewards would be likewise.  But today’s graduates have to find and fend for themselves in a job market that produces millions fewer openings than the educational system produces job-hungry graduates.

            All too suddenly, students are having to

a. Recalibrate their expectations (a lower-paying job in a less glamorous location, instead of a high-paying job in one of China’s booming, crowded cities)

b. Retarget their goals (maintaining their status as “employed”. . . somewhere, instead of latching on to a life-long, diploma-to-grave job, often in a thriving city)

c. Realize that times have changed (“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you must do for yourself.”)

            Fortunately, Sally found a good position in a health field that utilizes her training, even though the salary is unremarkable.  Unfortunately, the PhD that helped her get selected for the job, over so many other qualified candidates clambering for the opportunity, that same PhD carries additional expectations.  Specifically, her employer expects that she will find the time in her busy schedule of providing needed health care to the people to devise, develop, and carry out an innovative research program, one that will attract funding to support her work and contribute to the upkeep of the entire institution.  Since there are few PhDs at her institution, the employers have little understanding of what they are asking Sally to do and are too often unable to give her guidance, direction, and support on how this might be done.

            The result is that Sally feels overworked, underpaid, misunderstood, and generally unappreciated. This mood does little to enhance her commitment to the institution or the institution’s commitment to her.

            She looks for satisfaction and psychic rewards in other areas; e.g., conversing with foreigners, learning more about her city and its history, and visiting churches where, primarily through the music, she gains a sense of beauty, longing, and belonging.

            There are many young people like Sally in China who are also seeking relief, fulfillment, and satisfaction.

            So when you read about the undeniably rapid advances in China, don’t forget that there are many people like Sally in China who are working hard to avoid being impaled on the cusp of change. 

-Donald and Karen Barnes