China as "Most Stressful" Place on Earth.

“Santa Clara” is among my Google alerts because my eldest daughter studies engineering at the University there. Friday, it was filled with stories of an engineer (apparently Chinese-American) who, after being laid off from his high tech start-up, killed three people at the company where he once worked. The story bothered me, but it did not worry me about my kid (who was in Palo Alto in any event) because these sorts of things are random and can happen anywhere. I drew no conclusions from these murders about Chinese-Americans, Santa Clarans, high tech workers, Californians, or we 300 or so million Americans.

But when one out of 1.3 billion Chinese loses it and commits murder, there are apparently all sorts of things we can and should extrapolate. In Murder at the Drum Tower, Newsweek uses the knifing of the Minnesota couple inside Beijing’s drum tower during the Olympics as evidence of China being on the verge of a total meltdown. The article tells us that the perpetrator, a Mr. Tang, was a wonderful, normal guy until China’s many stresses rendered him unable to cope. Interestingly, his life is sounding much like that of the Santa Clara killer. 99 times out of 100, when someone goes berserk, the first stories from the press include interviews from those who sorta knew the guy (and it’s nearly always a guy) saying they never expected him to do this. Well of course. Who does expect someone to go out and start killing people for little to no reason?

Newsweek has this to say:

Back in August, Tang’s ordinariness was cause for relief: authorities quickly figured out that he wasn’t a terrorist, and the Games went on. But the truth is perhaps more disturbing. The country is the world’s most stressful: three decades of reforms have shredded China’s safety net and transformed society beyond recognition. That’s why, as Chinese leaders prepare to mark the 30th anniversary of Deng Xiaoping’s capitalist reforms next month, they’re also frantically pumping more than half a trillion dollars into their economy in hopes of staving off a downturn.

They have reason to worry. Economists say China’s GDP has to grow between 7.5 and 8 percent a year just to keep up with the need for new jobs. Labor unrest has already broken out across the country: half of China’s toymakers have gone bankrupt this year, throwing millions of factory workers into the streets, while cabbies angered by gas prices rioted and burned police vehicles in Chongqing a few weeks ago. Tang shared their sense of frustration. Many who knew him are reluctant to talk about him publicly, fearing trouble with the authorities, and most requested anonymity before agreeing to be interviewed. But his story reveals tensions that seethe just below the surface in China.

Let’s break this Newsweek story down and analyze it.

  • “Back in August, Tang’s ordinariness was cause for relief: authorities quickly figured out that he wasn’t a terrorist, and the Games went on. But the truth is perhaps more disturbing.” So in August, China was glad he was not a terrorist, but now it would prefer that he had been? That is ridiculous.
  • “The troubles that destroyed Tang—the loss of his job, the collapse of his marriage, heartbreak over his wastrel only child—are all too common across China.” Hey 24 year old Newsweek reporter, these troubles, to one degree or another, are the worry of about 90 percent of all adults all over the world. Big deal.
  • “The country is the world’s most stressful: three decades of reforms have shredded China’s safety net and transformed society beyond recognition.” Is this made up out of whole cloth or is there any evidence to support this? I thought recent surveys were showing the Chinese to be among the most content with their lot of any people in the world. Guess those must have been in August.
  • “That’s why, as Chinese leaders prepare to mark the 30th anniversary of Deng Xiaoping’s capitalist reforms next month, they’re also frantically pumping more than half a trillion dollars into their economy in hopes of staving off a downturn.” So the Chinese government is pumping money into the Chinese economy to relieve stress? If that were true, why is it not allocating any money for psychological counseling? It is true that the government is concerned that a poor economy will work to erode its perceived legitimacy, but the idea that is seeking to relieve psychological stress is bizarre.
  • “They have reason to worry. Economists say China’s GDP has to grow between 7.5 and 8 percent a year just to keep up with the need for new jobs.” This is what I have read elsewhere and I do believe the government is concerned about this for reasons of governmental stability.
  • “Labor unrest has already broken out across the country: half of China’s toymakers have gone bankrupt this year, throwing millions of factory workers into the streets, while cabbies angered by gas prices rioted and burned police vehicles in Chongqing a few weeks ago.” First off, labor unrest was prevalent in China well before August and that was one of the main reasons China enacted its new Labor Contract Law earlier this year. Second, it is sheer hyperbole to say that the bankruptcies of China’s toymakers have thrown “millions of factory workers into the streets.” Most of China’s toymakers did not file bankruptcy, they just shut down. A legal point, I know, but it further evidences the unbelievable lack of care that went into this article. Third, it is a gross exaggeration to say these workers were thrown into the streets. This implies homelessness, and it is my understanding that most of these workers found new jobs or returned to their villages. I am not trying to minimize the impact of losing one’s job here, but let’s keep it in perspective.
  • “Tang shared their sense of frustration. Many who knew him are reluctant to talk about him publicly, fearing trouble with the authorities, and most requested anonymity before agreeing to be interviewed. But his story reveals tensions that seethe just below the surface in China.” Again, these sorts of “tensions” seethe just below the surface in just about every country on earth. So what?

The implication of the article seems to be that China was better off during the iron rice bowl years, and maybe it should return to socialism.

What do you think? What is Newsweek’s agenda here?

UPDATE: The always sensible (and I mean that in the same way my grandmother meant it in referring to the white shoes she would buy) ImageThief just ran what I see as a somewhat parallel post on the so-called furor regarding Gong Li’s having become a Singaporean citizen. In his post, Pardon me, but who gives a damn about Gong Li anyway? [link no longer exists]ImageThief refers to a TimesOnline story talking up how China “branded” Ms. Li a traitor.

ImageThief rightly points out that one can find any viewpoint on China’s internet and that most Chinese probably do not care one way or the other about Gong Li’s current passport:

All of which is scholarly good fun, but ignores the biggest point: Who besides undersexed dorm-crawlers gives a damn what Gong Li does? Imagethief is willing to bet that if you stopped Chinese people at random on the street in Beijing and asked them how they felt about Gong Li taking Singaporean citizenship, the most often expressed sentiments would be, “Huh?”, “How can I do that?” and “Who are you and why are you talking to me?” Not necessarily in that order.

Extrapolating from niche internet musings is not all that different from extrapolating from one murderous nut jobber.