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A Chinese Mayor-to-Be Tells His Story

An Excerpt from ‘Young China: How the Restless Generation Will Change Their Country and the World’

When I lived with Tom in the city of Chengdu in 2015 and into 2016, he was a 23-year-old probationary member of the Chinese Communist Party, on his way to joining the organization’s nearly 90 million full members. He wanted to embark on a career in government because he believed he could be a fair, considerate, thoughtful, and intelligent leader for his people and his country. By academic achievement, he ranked as one of the better minds of his generation, at the top of his class at Sichuan University, the best university in western China. (Tom and I decided not to use his Chinese name to reduce the risk of hurting his political career. He chose the English name Tom when he was a kid because “it was better than Jerry.”) Tom’s ultimate goal was to serve as mayor of a “small or large town” with a population of one to 14 million. Power also motivated him; politics was a way to be somebody. It was too early to tell if he was on track, but those were his ambitions.

Tom’s story—his hopes, fears, and mixed bag of experiences on the way to working for China’s government—reflects the evolving role of the Party in the lives of China’s young people. Government cadres experience reduced power and prominence in Chinese society today, largely because of Chinese Communist Party Secretary Xi Jinping’s voluble and popular anti-corruption campaign. For Tom, who saw the campaign as both a power play at the top but also a legitimate effort to stymy what had been rampant corruption at the local level, it complicates his aspirations to help his government push China towards becoming a wealthier and more powerful country.

Books

03.16.18

Young China

Zak Dychtwald
St. Martin’s Press: The author of Young China: How the Restless Generation Will Change Their Country and the World, who is in his twenties and fluent in Chinese, examines the future of China through the lens of the jiu ling hou, the generation born after 1990.{node, 45751}A close-up look at the Chinese generation born after 1990 exploring through personal encounters how young Chinese feel about everything from money and sex to their government, the West, and China’s shifting role in the world―not to mention their love affair with food, karaoke, and travel. Set primarily in the eastern second-tier city of Suzhou and the budding western metropolis of Chengdu, the book charts the touchstone issues this young generation faces. From single-child pressure to test-taking madness and the frenzy to buy an apartment as a prerequisite to marriage, from one-night-stands to an evolving understanding of family, Young China offers a fascinating portrait of the generation who will define what it means to be Chinese in the modern era.

One evening in May, three years before Xi abolished term limits, paving the way for him to potentially rule China indefinitely, Tom and I sat on two overstuffed couches in the old apartment we shared just outside the south gate of Sichuan University and discussed his ambition for a career in politics. A bottle of baijiu rested on the glass table between us. Tom reached over and poured the clear liquor into two white porcelain teacups. “Drunkenness reveals,” he intoned with mock severity, “what sobriety conceals”—a well-known business idiom. We clinked glasses. Also on the table sat a Taiwanese history textbook, prohibited in mainland China. I had smuggled it through customs when I returned from a trip to that politically contentious island. Tom and I had spent much of the afternoon comparing the Taiwanese textbook with a history primer used in a mainland Chinese high school. Before he dived into the divergent narratives, Tom had turned off our phones. “Just in case,” Tom had said. “Of what?” I asked. “Big Brother,” he whispered, referencing George Orwell’s dystopian 1984. Smiling, Tom then unplugged our Internet modem.

The major difference in the coverage between the two history books was in quantity, not quality: the Taiwanese history book devoted two-and-a-half pages to the June 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, the Chinese primer only a couple of paragraphs. When I asked about the difference, he shrugged. “It isn’t so surprising. I imagine your high school history account of the Thanksgiving story would look a lot different from Native Americans’, right?”

In many ways,Tom was a typical Chinese nerd. He stood five-foot-seven, and, like most Chinese university students, needed glasses. He had a network of friends in Chengdu, and a larger network of young people scattered around the country, whom he spoke to through Internet forums. Like those who formed connections over sports or swapping bitcoin intel, Tom’s Internet buddies organized around the common desire to pursue a career in government. Tom was probably more comfortable opposite a screen than a person, a more capable conversationalist over WeChat than a table. He had had one girlfriend in college. They dated for more than a year, but, as he freely shared, they never had sex. He had also never visited a prostitute; he was waiting for a real relationship, but it had not come along. He was not an extrovert, nor was he tall, rich, or handsome, which is what one of China’s most notorious Internet forums jokes Chinese women are looking for in a partner. But he was ambitious, growing up with the conviction that, like his grandparents and parents, he could change his fate.

Tom’s dad owned a bakery, where he and Tom’s grandfather baked a pastry from an old and secret family recipe. The pastry had a flaky crust with a sweet and savory filling. The trace of huājiāo, the peppercorn spice that creates a numbing sensation in one’s mouth and is Chengdu’s signature style of heat, kept the crowds coming back. The happiest I saw his grandfather was when I visited the bakery and, unable to help myself, ate six of his signature pastries.

On the strength of that recipe, Tom’s family had become, in the parlance of the Party, “moderately prosperous.” Those baked goods paid for Tom’s high school education at a boarding school in Chengdu, a 45-minute bus ride away from their hometown, and the family’s middle-class life. They lived in a new apartment complex with a large high-definition flat-screen TV, an at-home soymilk machine, and an automatic soup maker that allowed bone broth to simmer safely overnight. Their water filtration system and heater provided 10 different temperatures for various strains of tea. Their new microwave looked like it could lift off the counter and blast off into space.

And yet, Tom’s parents discouraged him from entering politics. His mom worked in government, as an administrator in the headquarters of a nearby city. The corruption dismayed her. She spoke of relatives seeking her “help” to evade the bribery necessary to win government building contracts or licenses to open businesses.She liked the idea of her son’s being a respected academic. Indeed, some of China’s top universities had considered Tom for a graduate school scholarship in philosophy.

Tom’s father wanted him to ride the startup wave that they’d heard so much about, particularly with the government initiativeMass Entrepreneurship and Innovation” (dàzhòng chuàngyè, wànzhǒng chuàngxīn, 大众创业, 万众创新), which offered some early-stage entrepreneurs reduced or free rent and minimal taxes. Whereas before government contracts and working with state-owned enterprises might be the ticket to wealth, Tom’s parents had seen kids of their neighbors get rich from China’s increasingly active venture capital scene, which saw an estimated U.S.$27.4 billion pumped into Chinese startups in 2015. “Why can’t you just start your own business?” Tom’s father asked.

Tom had weighed his parents’ considerations carefully and remained resolved to try to make his way in government, certain he could make a positive impact.

One of Tom’s mentors, a well-respected philosophy professor and long-time Party member at Sichuan University, arranged for us to meet in late 2015 with the regional head of development for the Party in Chengdu to discuss the process of selecting prospective government cadres from the many young hopefuls like Tom. Though under the pretense of discussing the Party with a foreign “scholar”—i.e., me, the 26-year-old foreign roommate—it was a big deal for Tom. This man managed the government’s industry investment in what the think tank Milken ranked as the “best-performing” city economy in China in 2015 and 2017.

Tom was nervous; though it wasn’t explicitly about him or his future, this man still had the power to make or break his career. We met in a Japanese teahouse near the cadre’s apartment. The cadre, who asked that his name not be used, lived in a new development in the southern part of Chengdu, just south of the New Century Global Center, the largest single building in the world, in an area far enough south of the city center as to not yet be served by the subway system. But Chengdu was expanding southward, toward the regional head’s apartment complex. At the time, real estate professionals considered his area the best investment in Chengdu due to the area’s budding high-tech zone and plans for extending the subway line. Now, the subway lets off nearly at the cadre’s door.

The cadre had a doctoral degree in philosophy. When Tom asked about whether the nature of his degree was a factor in entering government, the cadre said, “No, they just like to see if you can think and reason.” He was intelligent and relaxed, almost informal. Normally forthcoming, Tom clammed up once the conversation picked up steam. He became the underling, pouring tea for the cadre and me. And the cadre overlooked Tom. When the cadre spoke, he rarely looked at Tom, directing his answers towards me. When Tom did ask a question or chime in, the cadre would sometimes interrupt him; moreover, he did not acknowledge Tom for pouring the tea. The power dynamic was clear. The cadre knew Tom wanted to work in government, and treated him as someone on the bottom of that food chain.

I asked the official to name the most important characteristic for a cadre who aspires to leadership positions in the Party. “Relationships,” he said without hesitation. “The ability to work well with other people and within the Party.” Wordlessly accepting another pour of tea from Tom, he continued, “To be a government official is not as easy as everyone imagines—a man reading the paper with a big mug of tea at his desk. You have to be good with people, understand relationships.”

Relationships (guānxì), and the ability to navigate the internal politics of the Party, not just the politics of a city or even national politics, rank highest among key skills for young leadership candidates, the cadre seemed to be saying. “What about merit and hard work?” I asked. He shrugged. “Emotional intelligence and the ability to manage relationships is the most important part.”

Tom was frustrated when we left the meeting. “He means ass kissing. It is the same old bureaucracy.” Despite all the noise about catching tigers and flies, Tom believed the government had not changed enough, and he wanted to help put that change in motion.