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Resolving disputes in a rapidly transforming society

Beijing's high-rise housing units may look identical, but China's egalitarian spirit is waning. (Connie Wu photos)
Imagining what China's social evolution might feel like firsthand

Imagine that you were born in China in the 1950s, a time when socialist equality governed every aspect of life. As you grew up, you lived just like everyone else in the neighborhood: you possessed the same home furnishings, had the same level of education, earned the same wages, worked in similar state-owned enterprises, wore the same clothes, and enjoyed the same little amusements. Although opportunities were limited and goods were scarce, life was simple, harmonious, and equal.

Fifty years later, you find yourself in a society with overwhelming economic and social inequalities. China's economic reforms have created social classes based on wealth that did not exist in the old days. The complexity of modern society has affected social relations in the neighborhood, complicating the once-simple life and community relations.

A man ponders the slow-moving YangTze River.

You often lower your head to sigh because you were not as quick-headed as your neighbors were ten years ago as they took advantage of opportunities early in the market reforms. And so, they now have their own little businesses that have made them much better off than others in the neighborhood. You, on the other hand, remained in the factory because you didn't want to give up job security. But you look back and regret that you didn't take that chance because now, you are already too late: the cost of starting a business is too high and the circle of people you need to know is out of your reach. You have become uneasy and awkward around your wealthier neighbors because they have moved ahead of you on the social ladder and you are growing evermore envious of their status.

Other friends have also moved up after their successful businesses - which they never would have been able to start in the old days - made them rich. With their newfound wealth, they have bought luxurious high-rise apartments and enrolled their children in private schools offering quality education. You, on the other hand, sulk in the corner because you cannot provide the same education for your own child.

But there is something else really bothering you. It is how society works today. As you see it, everything is now based on money, even social relationships. People you used to know have become unforthcoming and superficial. You realize that friendly exchanges often have hidden motives embedded in them. Social relations in today's urban society seem to have become merely money relations.

You can't help but feel financially insecure because you are now an over-50-year-old living in a society that no longer stands by the concept of the "iron rice bowl," the symbol of the Chinese communist system of guaranteed lifetime employment. You lack the education, money, and - most of all - the right personal connections to move up the social ladder. The upper rungs seem to be sealed off from you and completely out of your reach. Nowadays, you actually feel poor, a sour feeling that you never experienced 25 years ago, back when everyone lived the same way. Today, as you live in a society that centers on money, it is hard not to be bitter and describe today's social life as morally "corrupt."

Your life has changed so much in the last two decades of economic reform. Has it improved? In many, many, many ways, yes. Materially, you are now able to purchase what you need. Politically, you now have a greater scope of personal freedom. However, in other ways, you no longer have the same sense of social security as you once did. And you just can't seem to shake the feeling that the personal pursuit of wealth is morally corrupting this society. But at times you shrug, because that is just the way it is; there is nothing you can do about it.

Lastly, you don't know how to keep up with social transformation, but you keep up. You don't know how you now live on just a few hundred yuan per month in the nation's capital, but you manage. You like the changes, and you believe that your sons and daughters will be able to live a better life than you have, that they will enjoy higher education, better pay, and continuous improvement of life. Yet you still reminisce about those good old days when people lived more equally.

* * *

While the preceding is a simplified life story of an average urban Chinese, it reflects some of the deepest feelings revealed to me by many of the people I have talked to. China's economic development has resulted in extreme disparities in economic and social status, brewing a lot of bitter feelings among the average people. What has always jumped out at me while walking around Beijing is the range of living standards in one city: millionaires and the dirt-poor live on the same block or across the street from each other. In my time here, I have observed that social inequality and disparity in material wealth have weakened the fabric of once tight-knit communities. Now I must determine whether the mediation committees can continue to maintain social harmony in an unequal society - or if this is already a lost cause.