People seriously want to get rich.
China’s huge population and booming economy is turning into a new world power, but what is creating that success, how secure is it, and what does it mean for the UK and other Western economies.
There was a minor riot in Beijing last week. The Apple store was attacked.
Its offence? Not being willing to sell sufficient numbers of the iPhone 4S.
Buyers had queued all night and things turned ugly when it became clear that many of those in line had not the faintest idea what an iPhone was.
They belonged to teams hired by middlemen who knew that every handset bought was immediately resalable for an additional hundred pounds.
The teams of the tech-unsavvy were identifiable to each other by home-made armbands, and when the store realised what was happening it suspended sales. That was when the eggs started flying.
In London they riot to steal things. In Beijing, they riot because they cannot buy them.
China proclaims itself a secular country. But that is not what it looks like. For a first-time visitor to China, the most astonishing aspect of the country is the worship of wealth.
The mayor of London may like to be seen riding around on a bicycle. The mayor of Beijing – once the greatest concentration of cyclists in the world – wouldn’t be seen dead on one.
Even China Daily, a sort of hymn-sheet to the Communist Party, reads like the FT much of the time.
It reported last Monday (16 January) that there were more Rolls Royces bought in China last year than anywhere else on earth.
Audi now sells more of its brand here than in Germany. The company confidently expects to exceed its target of one million sales between 2011 and 2013, “as long as we can grow annually at 8 percent”, as a senior executive asserted blithely. The target was set less than a year and a half ago.
It is all surface froth, of course. There will still be one billion, 299 million Chinese who do not buy an Audi. But it is the flaunting of wealth that is so shocking, because the whole economy floats on a sea of migrant workers willing to go anywhere for a day’s pay.
You can hear them hammering on the construction sites and see them clambering across the half-built highway towers from dawn until long after dusk.
Victorian Britain was perhaps rather similar, and the smog of Charles Dickens’ London finds its counterpart in the murk which envelopes Beijing on windless days and tears at your throat like sandpaper.
Beijing itself – once, apparently, a charming ancient city – has been torn down and replaced with a traffic-jammed assortment of functional concrete blocks interspersed with the occasional quite stunning pieces of modern architecture.
The old men of the politburo must look out on it all from the backs of their limousines and smile. Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution sent intellectuals to live as peasants. Embracing capitalism has created a class of urban plutocrats.
China is the great emerging force in the world, and the sense of apprehension everywhere else must be good.
It is customary to attribute China’s new wealth solely to its abundance of cheap labour. But it would have been impossible if the country’s potential entrepreneurs had not possessed the sort of work ethic which drove the captains of Victorian industry.
People seriously want to get rich. It may not be especially attractive. But it is more than enough to see off soft, Western welfare states which have sold their future for the sake of cheaper televisions and trainers.
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