Keith B. Richburg, a former China correspondent for The Washington Post, is the director of the Journalism and Media Studies Center at the University of Hong Kong.
Most Americans paying the minimal amount of attention now recognize China as the world’s ascendant economic superpower, destined by its sheer size to soon supplant the United States. China is known as America’s most important trading partner and the main culprit behind what President Trump calls an unfair trade imbalance. China is seen as more assertive militarily — and on a potential collision course with the U.S. Navy in the South China Sea.
The Chinese, by contrast, remain something of a mystery to Americans, most often seen through a few crude stereotypes. There are the stodgy Communist Party bureaucrats with their dyed black hair. There are the millions of industrious factory workers toiling endless hours assembling iPhones and electronics. There are dissident activists and hyperpartisan nationalists. There are billionaires and beggars. And there are legions of high-achieving, high-test-scoring students descending on American college campuses.
For a country many see as inheriting the mantle of global leadership, China’s ordinary people remain remarkably opaque, a blank slate on which Americans draw their own ideas, hopes and fears. Inevitably, there are misunderstandings. Perhaps the biggest misconception of the past two decades has been that as China grew richer, the Chinese would become more like Americans — including demanding more openness, freedom and democracy.
The irony is that while Americans have such a limited understanding of China’s people, young Chinese know more about America, despite growing up under a strict censorship regime. China’s millennials, those born in the 1990s, grew up with the Internet, iPhones, and regular doses of American television and popular culture. They learned English watching “Friends.” They followed the exploits of Frank Underwood, the conniving politician on “House of Cards.” Many are more widely traveled than their American counterparts.
Recent books by American authors attempting to explain contemporary China could fill more than a few floor-to-ceiling bookcases — academics, journalists, businessmen, economists and former government officials have tried to tell us everything we need to know about the next global superpower. But most take the 30,000-foot view and have the distant quality of the outsider looking in. What has been missing is a more granular look at the ordinary lives of China’s everyday people, expressing, in their own words, their dreams, worries and aspirations.
Two new books attempt to fill the void. “Young China,” by Zak Dychtwald, focuses on China’s millennials. “Leftover in China,” by journalist Roseann Lake, narrows in on an even smaller subset: well-educated, professional women trying to navigate their careers while facing the traditional imperatives of finding husbands and starting families.
The problem inherent in the granular approach is assuming that any individual’s story can capture the complexity and diversity of a country as vast and as populous as China. The trick is to avoid sweeping generalizations about 1.4 billion people.
Dychtwald’s is more of a hopscotch across different themes, represented by new characters introduced in each chapter. We meet an obsessive studier named Bella; a young professional named Li, who still lives off handouts from his parents; Lily, who undergoes cosmetic eyelid surgery to convey a more Western-looking appearance; a gay friend named William; and the author’s best friend, Tom, who is intent on becoming a Communist Party local official.
Lake relies on a cast of recurring characters who sometimes seem like Chinese versions of the four “Sex and the City” cosmopolitan-sipping cohorts: Christy, Zhang Mei, June and the mysterious Ivy, who works full-time as a mistress to married men but is considering “retiring” before her looks begin to fade.
Both books suffer when the authors resort to the same narrative device of portraying themselves as incredulous innocents abroad — the outsiders looking in — naively trying to understand their often incomprehensible Chinese friends. What is most valuable is when the Chinese characters are allowed to speak for themselves.
From Dychtwald’s book, the better of the two, we learn that Chinese millennials, unlike their jaded American counterparts, are still dreamers and strivers, and have faith that they can achieve their dreams. They also crave freedom — but not freedom in the Western sense, like the right to vote in elections. What they seek is freedom from thousands of years of cultural strictures and familial obligations, including the intense pressure to perform well on exams, enter a prestigious university, land a high-paying job, buy an apartment, find a suitable marriage partner, produce an heir and eventually care for their aging parents.
The young Chinese he profiles are searching for means of individual expression, any way to differentiate themselves from the masses. One young woman named Jing describes herself as “feeling like an ant in a big anthill of a gazillion people, all trying to run to the top at the same time.” Whether it is filling out a job application, beefing up their profile on a dating app or undergoing eyelid surgery, the goal is to make themselves stand out.
Also enlightening is learning that China’s millennials consider censorship more of an occasional annoyance than a major intrusion on their daily existence. They are vastly more concerned with following the rise and fall of property prices, swapping articles and videos among friends in their personal WeChat groups, and finding the best prices on the massive online shopping site Taobao. “We get that we are censored,” says one friend, Cindy. “It’s annoying, but we get what is going on.”
Lake clearly has less material to work with, so she supplements the stories of her female friends with her firsthand reportorial exploits, including interviews with various sexologists, a mixer event for singles and a visit to a ba zi expert, a kind of Chinese fortune teller who uses astrological signs to predict fate and destiny.
Lake judiciously sprinkles her book with citations and lengthy quotes from dozens of experts, including journalists, historians and anthropologists. So that makes it even odder that she fails even once to cite the obvious inspiration for this book, researcher and author Leta Hong Fincher, whose 2014 book, “Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China,” is considered the seminal work on the same topic.
Lake’s exclusion of any acknowledgment of Hong Fincher’s work unleashed a torrent of criticism among the China-watching community on Twitter. On Feb. 16, ChinaFile, the Asia Society’s respected online magazine, announced on Twitter that it was removing an interview with Lake, saying she did not respect scholarly or journalistic principles.
Hong Fincher, on Twitter, revealed that she and Lake had traded emails and exchanged ideas on the topic of gender inequality in China, after Lake complimented her on a 2011 article for Ms. Magazine that was the precursor to her book.
“This is not fun for me. I can’t sleep. I am in agony. I wonder if I should give up writing because I am not getting any rewards for my years of extremely hard work,” Hong Fincher wrote. Her supporters have called it another case of a Caucasian writer expropriating and then erasing the work of a writer of color.
In a February statement, Lake acknowledged the influence of Hong Fincher’s research and said she did credit her in earlier articles that appeared in Salon and Foreign Policy in 2012. But she said she deliberately avoided reading Hong Fincher’s book “because I was working on the manuscript for my own book, and I chose to stay focused on the stories of the women whose lives I feature in it.”
“The women I interviewed led me to see things from a different perspective and I have relied on the work of other scholars, as referenced in my book, to relay their stories,” Lake said in the statement. “My publisher stands with me as I say that ultimately, we are all rooting for the same women.”
The controversy detracts from what might otherwise have been a useful contribution to the growing collection of China books. But what will be more valuable, and what I most look forward to, are the books by China’s millennials and professional women telling their own stories, in their own words, writing in English and without the filter of their American interlocutors.
By Zak Dychtwald
St. Martin’s. 293 pp. $25.99
By Roseann Lake
Norton. 271 pp. $26.95