Monday, May 12, 2008

Chinese ratatouille

The Chinese new year of the rat has been a turbulent one so far. Right at the start of the year, many Chinese who work in cities, away from home, could not make the mandatory journey back home, a victim of mayhem in transportation as a result of the worst snow to hit China in over 50 years. As soon as the snow thawed and a semblance of normality was restored, the age old issue of Tibet raised its troublesome head again. Not a positive press for China in the year of the rat - the year in which China will don the mantle of the Olympic host and bask in the glory of their achievements as the world gazes with awe and amazement.

The bite of the snow still gnaws, and the counter allegations and invective on Tibet still ring in the air, encouraging reflection on the state of the nation and the challenges it faces on the march to fulfill its ambition to become a moderately prosperous society (xiao kang shui ping, in Chinese). While fueling the improvement of the rural living conditions in countryside through remittances from the urban workplace, the migrant workers continue to lead a miserable existence in the cities. Subject to quetionable contracts, some times below legal wages, and little paid leave and social welfare, the workers provide the cheap labour at the country’s economic engines in its factories and construction sites. The relatively well heeled urban dwellers often look at them with fear as the “haves” often look at the “have-nots”.

In spite of the harsh existence that this group ekes out, they are still responsible for bringing money to the otherwise impoverished countryside. The Chinese government is paying special attention to this, as evident in their development plan, embodied by the slogan of a “new countryside”.

While the rural residents are learning to cope with these basic challenges and the urban folks face the ordeal of rising prices. The Consumer Price Index touched 8.7% in February this year, an 11 year high. For the first quarter as a whole the inflation stood at 8%, a 5.3% increase over the same period last year. Apart from domestic disasters such as the snow storm and the blue ear disease afflicting the porcine population, international rise in grain prices is also contributing to the rising food prices.

At the same time rising real estate prices are making housing more and more inaccessible. Buying houses, is a new way of spending new money in China – just 15 years ago there were no houses to be bought, nor was there much money to buy them. But now buying a house has become a de rigueur pre mating condition and the steadily rising price line is converting many young Chinese into fang nu (house slaves) as a result of having burdened themselves with frightening mortgages. The alternative is forced bachelorhood, if they couldn’t muster up the courage to take the loan (even if they did muster up the courage to ask the hand of the loved one in marriage!).

While the real estate was in the ascendance in the just concluded year of the pig, its flight paled into insignificance when compared to the 96.7% increase in the Shanghai composite index. For the 136 million Chinese who climbed onto the stock bandwagon, buying houses became a lot easier with this gift from the financial markets. However the many others who balked at what they saw as the irrational exuberance of the market, rued the fact that they did not have the courage to haul their hard earned savings to the nearest brokerage. However with the over 40% decline that the market has seen from the dizzy heights of the peak in 2007, they are now congratulating themselves at their foresight.

In spite of the fact that the issues confronting the Chinese are weighty, they have much to look forward to and bring back a cheer in the lives. Of course they will beam with pride when they will host the Olympics this year. In fact the pride is already on display as are the marvellous facilities, including the Bird’s Nest stadium and The Water Cube several months ahead of the schedule.

The new apartments in the cities may stretch the bank accounts of the young Chinese who rush to acquire them, but they offer distinctly improved living conditions from the old and cramped houses they inhabited earlier. The new owners are enjoying the modern acquisition and converting their homes into sanctuaries of comfort and privacy. The stores are brimming with goods to furnish the apartment and make it an exclusive abode, making its owners glow with pride.

The new middle class created as a result of entrepreneurship and well paying jobs from multinationals and Chinese companies bulging with corporate profits, are aspiring to a lifestyle of the Western elite. They visit bars, sip red wine, enjoy gourmet food, watch Hollywood films (including Ratatouille, dubbed into Chinese) and plan for holidays abroad. The chilling frost which heralded the year of the rat has done nothing to dampen the optimism and the enthusiasm of the urban Chinese who plan to continue the celebration into the year and many more to come. The year of the rat represents the start of a new cycle in the Chinese calendar – and perhaps for China too as it gets ready to stage the Olympics. Rat is believed to embody qualities of being quick witted, nimble and charming. “Rats” like to be in the thick of action, are sociable and are never late for a party – qualities which will undoubtedly be on display in Beijing during the Olympics.

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