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September 4, 2006

China's Little Capitalists

by Sascha Matuszak

The beauty of Chinese society today is its ability to represent virtually every epoch of society, every possible strata, all at once. Unlike the U.S., where virtually every creed and color finds a home or at least a struggle for one, in China peasants rub shoulders with avant-garde artists and nouveau-riche fat cats with little education and rent five-star hotel rooms next to multilingual Party secretaries with world-class degrees. America is a melting pot of cultures; China is a melting pot of classes.

With this comes a variety of problems for the government to solve. It must raise the living standard for the common laborer running his smoke shop on the street corner and bring 21st-century farming methods and education to the countryside, while reining in corrupt businessmen and their bureaucrat cronies. But this is not all: the country is starving for energy, so every river with some white water is being dammed, and the Party's hold on power is as tenuous as it ever was, so the thought police have to keep all of these various social groups in check.

In come the "little capitalists." This group is a relatively new creation in today's China, although they have existed throughout the ages as the intellectual elite, or the aspiring intellectuals. In modern China, little capitalists are those who have gained enough wealth and/or education to fend for themselves quite well in this shark-infested ocean and have thereby gained a taste for the finer things in life. But for them, the finer things transcend materialism.

Of course, the finer things include trips to Nepal and Lhasa, lattes at Starbucks, and perhaps an SUV but, most recently and most importantly, also a newfound taste and a longing for the old ways. These are the Chinese hippies, if you will. They have a disdain for the rampant corruption and commercialization of their country and a love for the environment that has inspired poets for thousands of years. They see little or no hope to save their nation from the ravages of progress and therefore spend much of their time in the mountains and forests of western China – Sichuan, Qinghai, Guizhou, Yunnan, and Tibet – living among the various minorities, writing books, filming documentaries, and lambasting the Party whenever possible.

The Party, for them, is a mindless Borg intent on maintaining power, destroying all opposition, and increasing wealth through nepotism till Judgment Day cometh. The little capitalists are escaping to the woods and valleys of ancient China, to the few old towns still untouched by desperate greed, and they nurse their grieving wounds with works of art and literature and deep conversations that lead, in the end, to sorrowful silence. They are China's bleeding-heart liberals. They know enough about the outside world to be arrogantly aloof and/or welcomingly receptive to foreign hippies who have escaped their own countries – where progess also seems to reign supreme. The contradiction in their own hearts is a product of 40 years in China.

The contradiction, the conflict, revolves around looking West for hope while at the same time reaching back into their own rich culture and history to find a local solution to a global issue: globalization and its discontents.

The light at the end of the tunnel is that the little capitalists, although at times reviled by their own countrymen for selling out to Western values, seem to be growing in numbers and power. The primary reason for this is their love for China and the glory of the past, coupled with generous acts and a healthy dose of self-importance. Their patriotism keeps them alive, their self-importance impresses, and their acts endear them to others. Besides, it's cooler to be a little capitalist with a tea house in Dali than a fat cat being driven from dinner to dinner in the big city.

The train rumbling through the tunnel is the power of the Bao Fa Hu and the inexorable growth of desperate greed, fueled by an almost despairing reliance on the tools of the day: corruption, bribery, and selling one's soul in return for material wealth. Selling out is par for the course in modern China, and little capitalists (although they themselves hate the moniker and distance themselves from it at all times) are fighting the good fight. They remind me of antiwar activists in America.

The Bao Fa Hu is the very large and powerful group of stupendously wealthy businessmen and women who have little "cultural worth," even if they themselves realize this. Bao Fa means "explosively rich" – referring to the overnight successes available to those with the channels to bribe correctly. Hu means "group." They are peasant pimps, if you will, with the trappings of the elite, but with very small hearts.

The light at the end of this tunnel is that the Bao Fa Hu long for acknowledgment as more than just peasant pimps, as shining beacons of the power and wisdom of the Chinese nation – mercantile, culturally superior, and spiritually tending toward Buddha. The Bao Fa Hu visit temples often. It is important to be seen as a spiritual man/woman if you are to escape from under the umbrella of peasant pimpdom.

Little capitalists scorn these fake Buddhists, declaring them to be praying for naught but forgiveness for their dirty deeds – and the strength to continue committing them. They are not truly looking for spiritual enlightenment, but just realize that "this is the thing to do when rich."

The Lao Bai Xing ("old hundred name," i.e., commoners) accuse the little capitalists of the very same crime: buying up pu-er tea, sipping lattes, and being friendly with Tibetan monks because "this is the thing to do when an intellectual."

Chinese society is a roiling cauldron. Hu Jintao may claim his nation is undergoing a peaceful rise to the top, but there is nothing peaceful about the soul-searching going on among the upper classes or the free-for-all frenzy for material security among the lower classes. The social and political revolutions that brought Europe and America to their proverbial knees throughout the 20th century are hitting China in full force today.

Socialism and capitalism are warring with each other while Buddhism and spiritualism slowly gain power. Nationalism and globalism fight for possession of the little capitalist's soul as he/she retreats to the hills for respite and clarity.

The thought wars in China are of much greater consequence for the Chinese than for us looking in from the outside – but if there be a bleeding-heart intellectual in Sichuan and one in California, wouldn't it be interesting for them to meet and sip lattes and pu'er tea?

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  • Sascha Matuszak is a freelance writer living in Chengdu.

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