Amid a housing crisis, Chinese readers turn to a novel of 1937

From The Economist:

Published in 1937, “Rickshaw Boy” tells the story of Xiangzi, a young man trying to eke out a living in Beijing. At the beginning of the novel, he is kind and determined. He has no money and no real prospects, but reckons that with hard work he will be able to buy a rickshaw and build a life for himself. The cart would “guarantee his freedom and independence”, Xiangzi thinks. “Owning a rickshaw meant never having to suffer mistreatment or do the bidding of people who rented them out.”

By the end of the tale, he is a changed person. Each time he has bought—or come close to buying—a rickshaw, his dream has been taken from him. His loved ones have died. He has become selfish and cruel. Lao She, the author, intended the novel to be a critique of individualism; the character’s fate might not have been so dire, the story suggests, had he organised with other rickshaw-pullers and worked as part of a collective. Yet “Rickshaw Boy” seemed to warn readers that you cannot prosper in an unjust society, no matter how hard you toil.

Much has changed since the 1930s. China’s gdp has ballooned. Life expectancy has more than doubled (it was a paltry 35 years when Lao wrote the book). In 1949, after a bloody civil war, the Communist Party seized power. Yet this month the rickshaw boy returned to the country’s consciousness, invoked by angry homeowners. They had studied “Rickshaw Boy” in school to understand how weak China was in a bygone era; it has also been adapted into a film and an opera (pictured). Now people saw themselves in the story.

Tens of thousands of homeowners in China are refusing to pay mortgages on unfinished apartments. Many buy homes before they are built, often ploughing their life savings into the initial down-payment, but developer defaults and bankruptcies have stalled construction across the country, leading buyers to fear their homes will never be finished. They see no reason to keep paying for homes they cannot live in; some struggle to pay back mortgage loans on top of existing rent. “If I pay one yuan for a bottle of water and the store does not give it to me, I can report it to the police. If I pay a developer 1.5m yuan for a home and they refuse to build it for me, nothing happens to them,” one furious buyer said. “If I go on the streets I’m called a rioter.”

In Zhengzhou, a city in central China, a group of homebuyers concluded their declaration of a mortgage boycott with a quote from “Rickshaw Boy”. (“Xiangzi’s money was stolen, his rickshaw was smashed, he himself was beaten. He was not even allowed to cry out in pain, even a whimper was a mistake.”) They added that there are now “tens of thousands of rickshaw boys” in China: “We must throw off our chains, and let those who steal our money and smash our rickshaws know that the rickshaw boy is no longer a sheep to be slaughtered.” Discussions on social media often contained references to the novel. Between July 11th and July 13th, daily Weibo searches for “Rickshaw Boy” rocketed from under 500,000 to nearly 5m. The novel entered Weibo’s “newly popular” list of books.

Link to the rest at The Economist

2 thoughts on “Amid a housing crisis, Chinese readers turn to a novel of 1937”

  1. Lots of things to say about today’s China but three stand out:

    1- First, their economic numbers are made up. They are a sum of the numbers reported by regional bureaucrats, whose careers depend on reporting ever higher numbers, regardless of the reality on the ground. One example: school district budgets depend on the number of students reported. Hence, long after the ONE CHILD policy had hollowed out the younger generations, their census was reporting millions of phantom students. Who should by now be in the workforce but aren’t. Worse, over 70% of the missing population are female, victims of sex selection abortion and infanticide.

    2- Their GDP numbers, even if they were accurate, are the aggregate result of their population size, which is four times that of the US. China is far from being comparable to Japan, South Korea, or the developed world. In aggregate they are really comparable to Mexico and Central America.

    3- Their real estate sector (now imploding) makes up 29% of their GDP and close to 100% of local government revenues comes from real estate leases. The big developers now defaulting were running a form of Ponzi scheme where the revenue from buyers were used to build the property so many people with recent purchases are paying morgages on unfinished or even unstarted apartments. At last count, there are “mortgage strikes” ongoing in 91 cities. This is expanding into a banking crisis where people are unable to access their cash.

    If it sounds like the story in the book it is because it is. People who have been working their entire life are seeing their savings and “assets” evaporate like dry ice.

    The CCP needs a distraction.

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