The ongoing thoughts of an art teacher in China - and home in Sydney

A continuing diary about my travels in China, and thoughts about China and Chinese art from home and abroad

Sunday, April 10, 2016

''Water Flows Downhill, Man Struggles Upwards": The End of the Chinese Miracle?

Cao Fei, My Future is Not a Dream, 2006, from the series Whose Utopia,
digital video 20 min 6 sec, image courtesy the artist and Vitamin Creative Space
The urbanisation of China and its entry into world markets in recent decades has resulted in the largest migration in human history. Young - and not so young - workers from the impoverished countryside flocked to the big cities, especially to the manufacturing centres of southern China. The Pearl River Delta became the world's factory. Cities like Dongguan, in Guangdong Province, were populated almost entirely by rural teenagers and young parents who had been forced to leave their children back in their villages to be raised by grandparents, creating a generation of 'left behind children'. Despite the complex social issues that resulted, millions of resourceful and resilient migrants sought a secure financial future, and until recently it seemed most unlikely that many would return to the much-despised countryside and hard-scrabble rural poverty they had left behind. Except, of course, at Spring Festival time, when they returned home en masse for the holiday, bringing gifts and money to their families. 

This social revolution has been documented in Leslie T. Chang's wonderful book 'Factory Girls'; in the documentary film, 'Last Train Home', that recounts the arduous journeys of some of the 130 million workers travelling home for Spring Festival, and in contemporary art. Cao Fei's  award-winning SIEMENS Art Project of 2006, What Are You Doing Here? traced the daily lives of workers at the Osram Light Bulb Factory in Foshan. One element of her ambitious work is a video entitled Whose Utopia, for which she invited the workers to perform a dance to the music of their choice, against the background clatter of the assembly line. The video closes with portraits of individual workers gazing straight at the camera, defying us to see them as mere cogs in the machinery of China’s economic miracle.

Now, however, the 'miracle' is souring. The London Financial Times has produced a powerful series, 'The End of the Chinese Miracle', examining the impacts of a slowing economy, an aging population, and a dwindling labour force. After three decades of economic growth, and carefully targeted social and economic policy, China has completed its transformation from an essentially agrarian nation to an almost entirely urban society. But now, with factories closing (or relocating to Vietnam) due to changing markets and the pressures of higher wages, some of these migrant workers are returning to their hometowns. The implications of this metamorphosis, for China and for the world, are enormous. Check out the series HERE. And watch this fascinating and timely doco.