Reading Hillbilly Elegy in Beijing

By Jeremiah Jenne

The United States and China have more in common than people might think. Both are vast, continental empires with revolutionary governments convinced utterly of their own superiority. Each possesses a sense of exceptionalism that alternately fascinates and repulses other nations. And both, despite an oft-stated ideological commitment to equality of opportunity, embrace a vision of economic growth which is riven with inequality and class divisions.

J.D. Vance’s astonishing debut Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis is one-part memoir, one-part sociological treatise, and one-part sermon against the sense of betrayal and despair found among America’s white rural working class. Mr. Vance argues that inequality in America goes beyond the structural problems of macroeconomics. There are also cultural elements in class which cause those who might otherwise get ahead to make often inexplicable choices which then undermine their own advancement.

Reading Mr. Vance while living in Beijing, it is not hard to see how some of his descriptions of working class America — and the fates of those Americans over the 20th century— ping post-millennium echoes in present day China.  Mr. Vance’s simple, but inspiring, description of his own life story would be familiar to millions of young men and women in this country for whom it can also be said:

Two generations ago, my grandparents were dirt-poor and in love. They got married and moved north in the hope of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. Their grandchild (me) graduated from one of the finest educational institutions in the world. That’s the short version.

And yet despite the opportunities, China, like the United States, is a country with deep class divisions. These divides are economic, to be sure, but as in the American communities described by Mr. Vance, there are cultural conditions which perpetuate class barriers.

As Mr. Vance writes:

The wealthy and the powerful aren’t just wealthy and powerful; they follow a different set of norms and mores. When you go from working-class to professional-class, almost everything about your old life becomes unfashionable at best or unhealthy at worst.

There is in China — as in Vance’s description of America — a strong desire to rise above and, once having risen, pull up the drawbridge and enforce a segregation of classes. Separation begets inequality, and the cycle continues.

In my own apartment complex, inhabited mostly by upwardly mobile Beijing families, common safety complaints on our community chat group are not about prowlers, stray dogs, or the fact that our elevators haven’t been maintained since George W. Bush was president. Instead, there are numerous gripes about how our security guards are lax in allowing “outsiders” and “migrants” to bring their children into our courtyard to use the playground equipment.

The term which is used, not usually in earshot of these outsiders, is that such people lack suzhi. A nearly untranslatable word which roughly describes somebody’s class, breeding, manners, decorum but with an awkward dash of eugenics —the government is fond of encouraging “better births” using similar language.

Migrants — both parents and their children — face economic barriers to entry into the new middle class but also must overcome ingrained prejudice against those from poorer rural backgrounds. The Chinese government’s reliance on the hukou or residence permit system adds an additional layer of bureaucratic hurdles.

In the 2012 collection Chinese Characters: Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land, Michelle Damon Loyalka described the life of Zhang Erhua, a worker in a paper recycling yard outside of Xi’an. “I don’t like to work outside my village for too long,” explains Zhang. “If I do it for too long, my hearts gets tired.”

Zhang Erhua is one of millions of migrant workers living peripatetic existences, shuttling between rural and urban. At home, they live on the brink of poverty. In the city, they exist on the margins of society.  Once in the urban environment, many migrants settle into neighborhoods and communities brought with them from home. Here too, there are echoes of America’s great rural to urban migration. As Vance writes, the families of Appalachia having moved to major industrial cities uprooted their own values and culture:

Migration did not so much destroy neighborhoods and families as transport them.

Like their American predecessors, these rural migrants are part of an amazing industrial and economic transformation. The ubiquitous trishaw delivery van rocketing through the streets (and sidewalks) of Beijing are the fuel behind China’s much-discussed e-commerce revolution. China’s I-need-it-now system of online ordering requires a ready source of semi-educated rural migrants willing to brave Beijing traffic for dollars a day.

The sense that the system is somehow rigged is also pervasive. The government is always on the lookout for rumors and conspiracy theorists. It is also only too happy to suggest a few conspiracies of their own, blaming foreign powers for a host of social and economic problems. In this way, the Chinese Communist Party and Donald Trump, strange bedfellows indeed, appear to be sharing a playbook.

Rigged or no, everyone here in China has a stake in this game. There remains still a feeling of optimism for the future. One which has, to the dismay of many, been lost in the United States. That feeling that your labor will give your children a life better than you had.

As his grandfather told JD Vance, “Your generation will make its living with their minds, not their hands.”

That balance — between feeling that the outcome is fixed by interests beyond your control versus an optimism that labor still yields rewards for the future of your family — rests on a tentative fulcrum of faith in the system. The Party in China is well aware of the consequences if that faith should ebb. Politicians in the United States — especially Mr. Trump — seem all too ready to exploit the despair of those who have lost faith and to direct their anger at convenient, if false, targets.

China’s future as a great power in many ways will be determined by what the government chooses to do should workers here have their own crisis of faith. Channeling their own brand of xenophobic tribalism — as Mr. Trump is doing — would be disastrous.

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