As China Turns

When Deng Xiaoping began to open China in the late 1970’s, he said, “It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white. As long as it catches mice, it is a good cat.” This motto helped catalyze China into becoming what it is today: an increasingly materialistic, money-worshipping society that has lost touch with traditional ethics. Nothing captures this moral vacuum more vividly than the recent television drama, “Wo Ju” (“Crowded Spaces”), which has been riveting Chinese audiences.

The program’s “hero,” Guo Haizao, is a fair-skinned and innocent 25-year-old woman living near Shanghai. Initially she follows in her older sister’s footsteps in quest of their common dream, to attend one of China’s top universities. But, even with a university degree, life in go-go Shanghai turns out not to be as she had imagined.

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“Why is the world so full of unfairness, with the limelight only splashing on the prettiest spots in the city?” she wonders one night, as she worries about her and her sister’s struggle to buy a home.

As Song Siming, a handsome, successful, and Audi-driving – but also married – secretary to the Mayor, tells her, “On those unsightly corners in the dark where dirt, flies, and rats wander, nobody's paying attention.”

Song is a resourceful man who oozes charm. Guo soon becomes intoxicated by his air of can-do and success. When problems arise, he makes a quick phone call and gets things “settled.” Little by little, Guo finds herself taken in by his charm and ability to get things done. Before long, she is cheating on her boyfriend and swooning into Song’s arms and bed.

When Guo overhears fights between her sister and brother-in-law in their crammed rented room, her aspirations to get an apartment through hard work, and to start a family with her boyfriend and soon-to-be husband, begin to fade. She is tempted by the shortcut Song promises and allows herself to be seduced by him in turn for a large sum of cash and luxury apartment. Soon she is even pregnant. Song certainly knows how “to catch mice”!

“Wo Ju” is an adaptation of a novel about recent skyrocketing housing prices in Chinese cities – especially in Shanghai – and the effect of real-estate fever on young Chinese men and women in today’s get-rich-by-any-means China. Through the soap opera, viewers get a sense of how the Chinese dream has begun to center around property ownership rather than education or love, and how this change has been transforming Chinese society, sometimes in startling ways.

These changes have created a new kind of hope and despair among the generation of Chinese now coming of age. But, of course, the sub-text is that if this fixation on property has also led to greater pragmatism in affairs of the heart, it has also led to a worrisome property bubble that many economists now fear could soon burst.

Then, because this is a soap opera, Song suddenly dies in a car crash, just as he is rushing to the hospital – while being chased by corruption investigators! – to check on his sweetheart and their unborn baby boy. But, as it happens, only days before Guo secretly had an abortion, right after a dramatic fight with Song’s wife.

As fantastic and convoluted as the plot sometimes gets, “Wo Ju” offers a truthful look at what animates contemporary Chinese society: property, money, sex, cars, and power. Perhaps because it captures the zeitgeist so well, the program has become hugely popular, so much so that it has recently caught the attention of media censors. Indeed, its realistic use of profanity and its depiction of the spiritual vacuum that grips China got it banished from one of Beijing’s TV channels.

While the official media are flooding television and cinema screens with propaganda about Confucius, ancient fairytales, and kung fu epics, “Wo Ju” engages a broad cross-section of contemporary society, which sees in it troubling aspects of their own lives: official corruption, mistresses, even house slaves. As Song arrogantly says to Guo before he dies, “As long as it’s a problem that we can solve with money, then it’s not a big problem.”

The program has caused a tsunami of online reflection. Many Web sites and bulletin boards have run surveys with questions like, “If you were Guo Haizao, would you choose Song Siming and an apartment or Xiaobei (the dumped boyfriend) and true love?” On one of China’s largest sites, 46% picked Song, while only 22% chose the young boyfriend, a choice that suggests where the new generation’s values now lay.

The traditional virtues of “true love” have been replaced by pragmatism and a willingness to become a mistress before youth expires and all chances of getting a good apartment are lost. After all, many netizens now argue, does not such a practical course of action save many years of hard work? One recent Internet match-making effort attracted applications from more than 10,000 young women, all seeking a chance to marry a Shenzhen multi-millionaire sight unseen. That was not the first lottery marriage in today’s China, and it surely will not be the last.

The most interesting thing about “Wo Ju” may be that most viewers do not dislike Song, the string-pulling mayor’s secretary. Indeed, while Song may be cast as an anti-hero, in contemporary China, he is considered a “good catch.” More and more young women are making just such practical choices: putting an apartment before love and pragmatism before principle.