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Population, Way of Life

male head of household, rapid entry, profitable employment, globalized economy, Communist revolution

Communism has brought about far-reaching changes in China, as the way of life of China’s people has incorporated and adjusted to shifting ideological currents. Traditionally, the average Chinese citizen, especially the more than 90 percent of the population who resided in rural areas, had little or nothing to do with the central or local government. Most people’s lives were centered on their home village or town, and the family was the main unit of social activity and economic production. The Communist revolution injected the Communist Party into every level of urban and rural life and every institution of society. Thus for the average Chinese citizen, whether urban or rural dweller, Communism has brought a far more intrusive role of government in daily life and in the operation of all significant facets of the economy and society.

However, in the years following the death of Chairman Mao in 1976, China’s leaders gradually modified the strict policies of socialist guidance of the economy, and the role of the party in everyday life began to diminish. This shift reflected an increasing understanding among party leaders that the socialist approach was not succeeding. They recognized that it had not provided a better life for the Chinese people and was stifling economic growth. The shift has been particularly evident in the countryside. Reforms in the rural economy have led to a virtual privatization of rural land, with peasants acquiring long-term leases that amount virtually to private ownership. Many peasants are now responsible for earning their own livelihoods and supporting their families. The state’s role in their daily lives has clearly diminished, although it has not disappeared.

Despite the far-reaching changes in rural areas, country life remains attuned to the seasons and focused on nearby towns and cities for commerce and entertainment. In the rural areas surrounding large urban areas, the pace of life has intensified as farmers have geared their agricultural production to the growing demands of urban consumers. Moreover, much of China’s urban industrial development has flowed to the adjacent rural areas. In these areas land is readily available at lower prices, and the rules concerning release of noxious fumes, liquids, and solids are looser and often not enforced. The inhabitants of these rural areas peripheral to cities have greater opportunities for employment off the farms, often in industrial or service jobs that are not even related to the farm economy. Residents of these areas have been increasingly drawn into a quasi-urban lifestyle, with all of its attendant pleasures and challenges.

Traditional rural family life has been changed by the dynamism of the nearby cities and their evolving economies. New employment opportunities often attract the male head of household, who may later be followed by other members of the farm family. Such employment offers new opportunities but also new challenges. Uncertainty about the long-term prospects for employment off the farm often makes farmers reluctant to let go of their land and farms. When peasants leave the farm under such circumstances, they often leave the farming to those at home who have little interest and enthusiasm for the work, which may be viewed as difficult and tiresome. Under these conditions, the quality of the farm may decline, and the productivity of both land and people may begin to diminish. Nevertheless, the off-farm jobs enhance prospects for social as well as economic change. The new jobs bring rural Chinese into contact with urban dwellers who have different values and different ways of doing things.

Farther from the cities, in the more remote areas of the interior, the traditional rural way of life is generally more prominent. In these areas, opportunities for new off-farm jobs are limited. Yet even in these locations, many peasants have grown dissatisfied with local conditions. They have migrated to other provinces and distant cities in search of more profitable employment and relief from poverty and the routines of village life. Such migrations are not easy, however. The peasants are allowed to leave their villages only as temporary migrants to provide needed labor services in those urban jobs that are the most undesirable, difficult, and dirty. These include jobs in construction, transportation, and domestic service. Migrants must provide for their own lodging, food, and other needs. They are not entitled to the many privileges and subsidies afforded urban citizens employed in the state-supported sector of the economy—such as health care and good schooling for their children. Yet these transients continue to leave rural areas for the cities with dreams of either becoming permanent city dwellers or earning their fortunes and returning to their native villages with new wealth and power. Some have indeed done well. However, the reality for most of these transients is a difficult life of hard work and a second-class status, in cities far from their native villages.

In the cities, the power of the CCP and its governing apparatuses of state power are more obvious and controlling. Most people in cities are employed in state-operated commercial and industrial enterprises. Workers in these enterprises must adhere to state-mandated social rules, as well as employment rules, as the state controls virtually all aspects of life. Access to housing, health care, and education depend on following state-mandated guidelines of proper social conduct, such as the one-child per family policy. In the 1990s the state initiated an effort to privatize urban housing. By the close of the 20th century, many state-supported employees were able to purchase apartments through various state-supported credit arrangements.

At the same time, city life offers many opportunities that are not available in the countryside. City dwellers enjoy the benefits associated with higher incomes and enhanced cultural, commercial, and educational opportunities. China’s large cities in the eastern coastal provinces offer many of the amenities and opportunities associated with cities in the West. Among these are department stores containing the latest fashions, and lodging and restaurant facilities in hotels of world-class standards. In addition to outstanding local and non-local Chinese cuisine, European, Japanese, Indian, and American fare is available. American fast food, such as McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken, is widely available.

In and around China’s great cities are found the evolving lifestyles of the newly rich, those with strong connections in government and commerce who can accumulate substantial wealth. Members of this class are often eager to flaunt their new wealth. They buy fine clothing and accessories and fancy automobiles, and even purchase large, single-family dwellings near new private schools. Fancy restaurants, discos, and nightclubs are trendy venues for the newly rich to show off their wealth and status and enjoy a sophisticated lifestyle. The children of these urbanites are the ones most likely to go abroad for foreign study and learn foreign languages. Such education will permit them rapid entry into the business and professional circles of China’s increasingly globalized economy and society. While this newly wealthy population is comparatively small, it signifies the rapidly growing disparity in income levels between rich and poor in China’s cities.

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