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  • The End of the Chinese Dream: Why Chinese People Fear the Future by Gerard Lemos
  • Franklin J. Woo (bio)
Gerard Lemos. The End of the Chinese Dream: Why Chinese People Fear the Future. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012. ix, 320 pp. Hardcover $38.00, isbn 978-0-300-16924-9.

During an October 2012 travel study to China, our group witnessed one day in Xian a fleet of three Mercedes-Benzes driving into the court of the Crystal Island Hotel, where we were staying. The passengers were all part of an excited wedding party, with one member rushing to light a thirty-foot-long chain of firecrackers, signaling the arrival of the bride and groom. Such a scene reminded me of an even more opulent scene posted on the Internet in 2011: a YouTube scene of the wedding of a coal magnate family in Shanxi Province. Parading its wealth through the streets of Datong, the wedding party involved four Rolls Royces leading the opulent parade, followed by four Ferraris and six Jeeps carrying the camera crew. Between the eight lead cars and the six Jeeps were six Mercedes-Benzes, six Bentleys, and one Hummer as a backup. These people were obviously not the fear-the-future Chinese that Gerard Lemos writes about in The End of the Chinese Dream. They are part of the superrich, the “princelings” (p. 45) of the powerful elites, mentioned by the author only as stark contrast to the poor and marginalized people, the main focus of his book. Lemos’s Chinese are those who fall between the cracks and are left behind in a modernizing China with an unrelenting drive to move ahead.

They are people whose iron rice bowls have vanished with the closing or privatizing of the nation’s nonprofit, state-owned enterprises, mostly factories that once provided their workers with housing, food subsidies, health care, the education of children, and pensions upon retirement. Included are the unfortunate farmers whose land was grabbed by rapacious commercial and housing developers with compensation (if paid) less than the worth of the land and nowhere proportionate to the expensive structures being built. Overnight, these people found their security gone—having to fend for themselves with an inflationary cost of living, heath care with an expensive price tag, and hospitalization that, for most, was out of reach. Furthermore, how to pay for the expensive tuition and cost of books and school supplies for their children is a new burden, which under the cradle-to-grave coverage system of former state enterprises was a part of the overall benefits.

As Lemos describes it,

Economic growth since the 1980s has been achieved at the expense of another set of trauma to add to those of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. The social safety net has been whisked away from more than 50 million people working in state-owned factories in cities. Forty to 50 million farmers have lost their land and many are poverty-stricken and devoid of hope. Hardship is unabated for several hundred million people in the countryside. Up to 200 million migrants float on the peripheries of the cities detached from the past and with no certainty for the [End Page 454] future. Communities have been demolished and dispersed by wholesale urban redevelopment sweeping aside families and ways of life with deep roots.

(p. 211)

In short, modernization brings manifold and unintended deleterious consequences, including the erosion of the lifestyle and culture of the people.

An expert in social policy in England, Lemos was in China for a seminar and ended up teaching in Chongqing. For a person who has seriously studied China only since 2006 (p. 5), he has done remarkably well in providing in his book a more complete, albeit dismal picture of a China “run by the wealthy for the benefit of the wealthy” (p. 2). His description of the city of Chongqing (declared a municipality since 1998) is informative and comprehensive, giving a vivid picture of its stark contrasts:

The super-elite are hidden away in leafy, gated communities near golf courses. The upward mobile young professional middle classes have moved to city centre high-rise flats, near...