China Business, Internet

China as "Most Stressful" Place on Earth.

expat stress

“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.

23 responses to “China as "Most Stressful" Place on Earth.”

  1. Same as every other magazine’s agenda: to pander to a view it thinks many of its readers want to read. In this case, “see? China’s not so great. We’re still better than them.”

  2. No one can measure stress, so to call China the “Most Stressful Place On Earth” is a bit of an exaggeration.
    But I agree when they mentioned that alot of those workers from toy factories were thrown onto the streets. Those who didn’t have the money to pay for their transport back to their villages and still cannot find new jobs are probably roaming somewhere in China.
    I just received instructions to dress down when we travel into China to avoid being targeted. Apparently my company thinks that many who could not afford their fare back to their hometowns will be desparate enough to rob for their ride home. Especially nearer to Chinese New Year as many were not able to make it back due to the snowstorms last year. People can get desparate when they miss their kins…
    I’m heeding that advice and I hope other readers do take more care when they travel in China as well~

  3. I think they’re grasping for any story that acts as a counterpoint to the prevailing wisdom that China is developing in a normal and pretty stable manner.

  4. I’m not sure why you find this surprising. 99% of news articles consist of stringing a bunch of cliches together and stuffing the interstices with juicy quotes and cute facts.
    Does Newsweek have some secret agenda? No agenda, they actually think this is what news is. And this is why the Economist is eating the American newsmagazines’ lunch.

  5. I actually tend to disagree on this one. Yes, one shouldn’t extrapolate about the plight of 1.3 billion people from a single, extreme case. But, there are a few important points:
    1) When economies dive south, crime almost always rises. Read, for example, the “Sky Peace Gate” Papers, you’ll see that the central government was getting fairly worrying reports about unrest and crime from around the country back in’89. High inflation and a weak economy was a huge factor contributing factor back then.
    2)The social safety net, especially for former SOE workers, was dismantled for millions of workers. See, for example, (the other) CLB’s report on the issue:
    http://www.clb.org.hk/en/files/File/research_reports/no_way_out.pdf
    Millions were laid off, lost their social security, and legally had no course of remedy.
    So, while it is inexcusable to wave off moral blame for a hideous violent act because of economic and social circumstances, there is no doubt that the possibility for these types of incidents could rise as the economic downturn deepens. Hu Jintao has even made a cadres study his remarks on having a sense of crisis in carrying out their work.

  6. Uh, dramatic license.
    While I reckon the writer might actually buy into what s/he’s writing, it is also quite common to dress up your piece to be a “more interesting read.” I think that tendency applies to all subjects and this incident with China didn’t escape such journalistic tendencies.

  7. I read an small article in Jane’s International Security about Beijing allowing “protective services companies” to set up shop in China next year. IE these are the bodyguard service companies that are required in Africa and the Middle East (and some of Latin America). Any idea as to why this would be allowed? I would think Beijing, the PSB and the PLA would balk at the idea of allowing ex-foreign military and LEO types into their country, possibly lightly armed, to protect foreigners.

  8. I have mixed feelings about the story. As the story of Tang Yongming it is interesting and tragic. It is also illustrative of some of the problems in China, but in fairly superficial way. People encounter troubles all over the world. Some bear them quietly (the Chinese have something of a reputation for this, although it may be mythologized), some go postal (we Americans have a reputation for this, though it may also be mythologized). China is in the midst of sweeping social displacement. News formula demands that these kinds of spanning issues be put into personal terms, and Tang is a convenient mechanism for doing that. If there’s an agenda here, that’s probably it.
    But whether Tang’s story on its own is sufficient to illustrate these issues is debatable. I’m not sure where the categorical statement that China is the world’s most stressful country comes from (and it’s sure not cited). On average I’d say that people are probably doing better here than in, say, Somalia, Congo, Zimbabwe or North Korea. What is true is that the social and economic forces acting on China are affecting more people than those in any other country in the world. If your yardstick for stress is cumulative, then fine. Seems odd, though.

  9. Thanks for those interesting comments. I reckon it’d be almost funny — if it weren’t for Newsweek’s wide readership and its influence. And the fact that such examples of misreporting give more ammo to the teams of local moralists who get so giddy about their own freedom to freely express their own opinions about western opinions of them — and yet they still can’t imagine that journalists can a) commit errors of fact, and b) deliberately slant stories. I guess that doesn’t happen in China. (We know that young journos can get carried away; but gone, it would seem, are the days of fact re-checking and stern editorship. Somedays I despair.)

  10. Dan.
    What I find most uh.. interesting.. difficult.. about the story is the use of Tang to highlight the level of stress people are going through in China. No doubt, the level of stress he experienced played a part, but he is the worst an exception to the rule in this case.
    There is little denying that stress in China is hi right now, just as it is in the US, and the article would have been stronger had they just interviewed taxi driver, real estate agents, commodity brokers, and restaurant operators who are seeing increased pressure right now.. and who are working through it without committing a capital offense and ending their own lives.
    As for the comments about wanting the return of Mao, I have heard this by many in my time (city and rural). Spend any time in the poorest regions of China and you still see pictures of the Chairman around, and for those in the lower / lower middle class, the free education and social safety net are things they still long for to return.
    R

  11. I agree with All Roads. I have heard many middle aged people lament about the “good old days” when every one was poor but there was not the dog eat dog China of today. They they had clothes on their backs, food in their stomachs, communities were friendlier, barefoot doctors and TCM people took care of most medical needs, etc. How true that is remains up to speculation, certainly those baby boomers who are wealthy would disagree and wistfully remember sleeping in 3 layers of wool in the winter and sleeping on mats on sidewalks in the summer when they are vacationing in Switzerland or enjoying their Korean style heated floors in their Chinese villas.

  12. All Roads and Greg,
    Of course there are people who lament the changes from the “good old days” when everyone was poor. So what? There are people who lament the cell phone the TV, the radio, the car, etc. I never disputed this; I just wonder if Newsweek would prefer that China return to those days.

  13. This is a very interesting post Dan. I enjoyed reading your deconstruction of this rather silly Newsweek article. It’s certainly true though, as All Roads says, that many people throughout China, expecially in rural areas, continue to look back to Mao’s era with great fondness, and it is very common in such places to find posters of Mao decorating living room walls. This is something I described in my travel narrative, for Mao has been diefied by many. The abandonment of socialist ideology, and the breaking down of the iron rice bowl, are both contributing to the religious revivalism. Allow me to quote here a lengthy extract from my book, which elaborates on this:
    ….We spent an hour just wandering through Xingping’s narrow little streets and laneways, much of which are simply dirt pathways, the village homes mostly made from either timber or mud brick. Many of the homes had their doorways open onto the laneways, and so I was able to peer in for a quick look as I strolled by. I noticed that literally every home had a poster portrait of Chairman Mao hanging on the living room wall, and in front of most doorways sat reed baskets full of either peanuts or bright red chillis, drying in the sun. A charming, some would say quaint aesthetic.
    In the prosperous coastal cities to the east, Deng Xiaoping is the leader closest to most people’s hearts, but here in Xingping it is Mao’s smiling face that seems to greet me almost everywhere I look.
    ‘Why do so many people here continue to decorate their homes with the image of Chairman Mao?’ I asked Xiaojing.
    ‘Most Chinese peasants think of him as a God,’ she replied with a casual shrug of the shoulders. ‘They think that life was fairer in Mao’s time.’
    ‘So China’s new rich worship Deng, while those who have yet to benefit from the new economy look back with nostalgia to Mao’s time, when China was more of an egalitarian society – is that what you’re saying?’
    ‘Exactly. The poorer workers in the cities also worship Mao, and those peasants who are now rich, they are thankful to Deng.’
    The cult of Mao was originally initiated by the government for political purposes during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, but has now been revived by the poor, who seem to have appropriated the Chairman’s image for their own purposes. His face, I have noticed, can often be found hanging from car mirrors, his head used as money boxes, his smile on watch faces. People cling to his image for good luck, just as Buddhists for centuries have decorated their homes with statues of Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy, or of Chan Chu the money frog.
    The economic reforms unleashed by Deng swept aside the social values endorsed by Mao, creating a moral vacuum, and as the political scientist Lin Zhimin has pointed out, China’s leaders, recognising the dangers of this vacuum in belief, ‘have continued to portray their policies in the language of socialism and communism, even when the terms used no longer bear much connection with their original meanings.’ Various religions and folk beliefs are now able to openly compete for the hearts and minds of ordinary people, each one attempting to satisfy the population’s need to have something to believe in.
    According to official figures, Buddhism alone now claims over 100 million followers. Islam, the second most popular religion, has 20.3 million followers, Protestantism 16 million, Catholicism 5 million and Daoism 3 million. These five religious movements alone now claim a combined total of roughly 144 million followers, or eleven percent of the population. According to the political scientist Hongyi Harry Lai, in his paper on The Religious Revival in China, folk religions are now thought to attract around nineteen percent of the total population, ‘resulting in a marked rise’ in the number of new shrines and temples being built throughout the rural countryside.
    The economic and social changes that have swept through China since the late 1970s have combined to create considerable social stresses and raptures, dislocating millions, with many losing their free health care and guaranteed incomes. Religion, as Lai points out, ‘meets the population’s need for psychological comfort,’ helping them to cope more easily with their rapidly modernising world – a world, to paraphrase Marx, where all that is solid can, and often does, melt into air.

  14. Beyond the flippant tone of the article…historically across the world there’s a very strong link between periods of rapid social/cultural/economic change and drug abuse (including alcohol) and psychological problems. China’s quite interesting as these problems at the moment seem (to my untrained eye) very mild relative to the dislocation many people must feel in the new China. I bet there’s some really interesting studies on this done by CASS, and bet with equal confidence that there’s no chance in a million years that they’ll be available for public reading.

  15. Duncan writes: “China’s quite interesting as these problems at the moment seem (to my untrained eye) very mild relative to the dislocation many people must feel in the new China.”
    Yes, this is my impression too. China is hardly on the verge of a “complete meltdown” as the Newsweek article seems to suggest. Far from it, in fact. Arguably, the country has never in its long history been more stable.

  16. Dan….if you’re using Newsweek as a barometer of reality then you are just consuming Bursen- Marsteller, Fleishman-Hillard, Hill & Knowlton PR mumbo jumbo…
    Stick with your emperical approach to news and reality here on Chinalawblog. It clearly will lead you to a more lucid version of the truth. It is why I keep returning to read.
    Newsweek = Chop Suey (chinese food made with what is left over)

  17. Seems to me the article is attempting to examine a real and concrete issue (that Chinese society is often marked by low security and certainty) in the tale of one unfortunate man. That can be an effective way of telling a story, but I’d rather see it with a less extreme example, and a more in depth look at the institutions that fell short.
    BTW, Melinda Liu is not 24 years old. She’s got alot more experience under her belt than that.

  18. @ Dan
    “I just wonder if Newsweek would prefer that China return to those days.”
    Considering the variety of chemicals introduced into our bodies due to plastics (use only glass or metal for food storage, cooking, serving etc…plastic is bad) and ingesting other peoples’ medications in our water and food, the world needs to find a way back some sort of a more “basic” lifestyle. Not saying we should go back go huts and caves, but we’ve all bit off more than we can chew with respect to development and when you have a gross lack of emissions management you make the problem much worse.
    @ MAJ
    I would say China is more stable in some places and less stable than others.

  19. Dan,
    People do not miss the poverty (most of them are still just as poor actually), they feel that the TV is a poor replacement for free healthcare.
    … and no one riots over a TV
    R

  20. Well, Dan the Man, I think most of us old honky big-noses here China had a good laugh when, after years of “Let me tell you what to do” lectures and articles bashing China for “outrages” such as the adorable little girl in red at the Olympics’ opening ceremony lip-syncing, the same crew suddenly started whining that China should do more to help America in its self-inflicted financial crisis. I suggest that the world be legally divided by international law (Hehehehe) into two groups. (#1s) The global neighborhood folks: Those from any country that have lived, gotten to know, (especially in childhood) had some success in, and found real friends if not love in a second (or third etc) country, probably read the Economist and or have their own multi-info networks, and (#2s) the new peasants: Those that only know one country, such as, well, never mind, who can never, even with the best advisors, can make consistently good decisions about foreign countries because they are for any #2. just pure unknowns and therefore instinctively frightening, and are doomed to never rise above being, in fact, tourists. Newsweek writes for the #2s.
    There’s a chaser. The communications, transport, and travel revolutions that have occurred in the eye-blink of the last 200 years have dissolved for #1s many aspects of individual nationalisms. Therefore, it’s silly to be embarrassed by “American” Newsweek for what it says. Better perhaps to regret its global neighborhood peasant market position, use reactions to it as a good way to identify 1s & 2s in the field, and try not to laugh at them when, well, never mind.
    Lastly, there is a profound and general difference which underpins and influences the laws etc of East and West. Keeping it ever in mind helps explains many things in E/W operations: Western philosophies generally believe we are born EVIL and therefore must reform each other everyday, or at least on Sunday, and Asians generally believes the opposite, and put a lot of family, cultural and leadership energy into how to behave well , and in harmony together. I love America, served in its wars with Special Forces, and still represented its interests all over as a private diplomat. And the other day as I rode on a sleek, white, and spanking- new Chinese train from Shanghai to Hong Kong and watched the misty mountains and excellently farmed fields whizz by, I loved it too. What’s the problem? I love our little neighborhood and all its nooks and crannies. And if you think about it, so do you. And some day, looooong after we’re all dead, with luck and effort, its slums and cesspools will disappear. Maybe even its evils. Even Newsweek, bless its heart, says so on occasion. You shall know them by their fruits. Ok, enough! Back to work.

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