The Real Rural Life in China

Prior to the Lunar New Year1, I watched a video on Bilibili, the Chinese counterpart to the popular video-sharing platform, YouTube. And this article was then drafted because the video gave a great insight into the real rural life in China, an aspect that is rarely portrayed in the mainstream media.

Before diving into the specific contents of the video, I would like to excerpt a quotation from the book Zoning China: Online Video, Popular Culture, and the State by Li Luzhou:

If we look back to the 1980s and 1990s, the two decades immediately following China’s “reform and opening up,” there was always an unofficial, alternative mechanism of cultural provision falling outside the purview of the state, which China scholar Orville Schell calls the “second channel,” namely, piracy in all its permutations. Although some of its works were compatible with state ideology, the second channel also included many that departed from or even conflicted with the party line. The cultural formations that existed as an alternative to state media culture at different stages of the reform, collectively show that a dual cultural sphere has historically operated, generally with state permission, in China.

Despite the stringent censorship imposed by the Chinese government on the internet, valuable and introspective information can still be uncovered. With the rise in popularity of video streaming platforms in recent years, the second channel of information dissemination has gradually shifted from traditional media, such as books, newspapers, and television shows, to the internet. Specifically, the video platform has now become the primary channel of online life for the ordinary Chinese individuals, providing a valuable perspective for researchers seeking to understand contemporary Chinese society.

Returning to the video, it depicted the everyday life of a typical family living in rural Sichuan province in the run-up to the traditional Lunar New Year, the most important celebration for the Chinese people.

I have subscribed to the video channel for some time, and their videos always bring me joy, especially because of the lively laughter of the hostess. However, this particular video was not as delightful as their others, and instead inducing feelings of sorrow. The circumstances depicted in the video reminded me of my own experiences growing up in rural areas. Although the uploader of the video only intended to document his family’s life during the Lunar New Year, it is perhaps unexpected that I, as a viewer, was able to identify certain social issues prevalent in contemporary China.

Firstly, the video highlights the plight of migrant workers. It is not uncommon for migrant workers to experience wage defaults, as evidenced by the video uploader’s father, and this is not an isolated case. I have been privy to similar stories since childhood, from my father and some relatives.

The lack of social security exacerbates the insecurity and vulnerability of migrant workers and leads to the difficulties of rural life. In the prime of their lives, they can support themselves by working in urban areas. However, as they age and become unable to work, they have to return to their rural hometowns, where they have no social security. The only property rural peasants own is their land, which they have the right to use but not to own. Land cannot be sold or used as collateral for loans, making it an illiquid asset and unable to generate wealth.

In many cases, the elderly in rural areas rely on their children for sustenance, but this is not a secure arrangement. The current generation of young people in China is already under immense pressure, so it is unlikely they will be able to provide the necessary support to their aging parents. Despite this, having children is still considered important in rural communities and young people are often encouraged to have children, either by their parents or the government. However, the question remains: is having children truly valuable if one is unable to provide for oneself? Can their children support them in their old age? The answer in many rural areas is frequently a resounding no.

Today’s young people in China are eager to secure employment in the government or related sectors, driven by a desire for the prestige and stability associated with being a civil servant. The social security benefits of this occupation, including a stable income and high status within Chinese society, as well as numerous privileges, have made it highly desirable. Western scholars have referred to the peculiar phenomenon of the Chinese middle class as “The Puzzle of the Chinese Middle Class”, because a significant portion of the middle class is directly or indirectly dependent on the government.

The Chinese economy has suffered greatly as a result of the stringent zero-covid policy that has been in place for the past three years. The real estate industry, in particular, has been in a state of crisis, with many developers facing the threat of bankruptcy and a multitude of pre-sold houses remain unfinished.

In the midst of this economic turmoil, employment opportunities have plummeted, leading to widespread job loss, especially among recent university graduates. In fact, the unemployment rate for 16-24 reached a staggering 20 percent in the latter half of 2022, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.

The Chinese government has acknowledged the dire employment situation, but it remains oblivious to the fact that its own zero-covid policy is the root cause of the problem. Instead of addressing the underlying issues, the government has merely encouraged people to be more “flexible” in their job search, a move that is widely seen as inadequate and insufficient.

Despite calling on its members to “never forget the original heart” of the Chinese Communist Party, it seems that under the leadership of Xi Jinping, the party has lost sight of its true purpose and is solely focused on maintaining its grip on power. It is clear that the the video I watched on Bilibili demonstrated the widespread problems facing Chinese society as a result of current public policy. Although the Chinese government has committed to provide more prosperous life for its citizens, the zero-covid policy has had disastrous consequences, leading to widespread job losses, rising unemployment rates and an ailing economy.

The video also highlighted the plight of rural people who have been unable to benefit from government policies, resulting in a widening wealth gap, limited social security and a growing lack of prospects for the elderly. Against this backdrop, it is clear that the Chinese government needs to adopt a new approach that is more responsive to the needs of the Chinese people and better understands the realities of their lives, even if it is a daunting task. It is my sincere hope that the Chinese people can enjoy true stability and prosperity by recognizing the need for and embracing progressive reform.

  1. What’s the precise translation for the Spring Festival, Chinese New Year or Lunar New Year? In my eyes, the recent ridiculous debate regarding the matter was devoid of logic and meaning. ↩︎