2006.05.20: May 20, 2006: Headlines: Figures: COS - China: Writing - China: San Fransisco Chronicle: RPCV Peter Hessler says: China's fast-changing economy has displaced millions of people, sparking a huge migration from farms and small towns to big cities, and from failing, state-owned enterprises into private businesses

Peace Corps Online: Directory: China: Special Report: China RPCV and Author Peter Hessler: 2006.05.20: May 20, 2006: Headlines: Figures: COS - China: Writing - China: San Fransisco Chronicle: RPCV Peter Hessler says: China's fast-changing economy has displaced millions of people, sparking a huge migration from farms and small towns to big cities, and from failing, state-owned enterprises into private businesses

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RPCV Peter Hessler says: China's fast-changing economy has displaced millions of people, sparking a huge migration from farms and small towns to big cities, and from failing, state-owned enterprises into private businesses

RPCV Peter Hessler says: China's fast-changing economy has displaced millions of people, sparking a huge migration from farms and small towns to big cities, and from failing, state-owned enterprises into private businesses

"This is not a political generation. They tend to be very economically minded. In some ways, I sympathize with them. They went through a lot of political problems,'' he said, referring first to the Cultural Revolution when the new generation's parents and grandparents were traumatized by thuggish Red Guards, and later the shootings of reform-minded students in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989.

RPCV Peter Hessler says: China's fast-changing economy has displaced millions of people, sparking a huge migration from farms and small towns to big cities, and from failing, state-owned enterprises into private businesses

Finding their niche in a changing China
Author tells how young people adjust to turbocharged economy

David Armstrong, Chronicle Staff Writer

Saturday, May 20, 2006

China's fast-changing economy has displaced millions of people, sparking a huge migration from farms and small towns to big cities, and from failing, state-owned enterprises into private businesses. Contained within that migration are millions of personal stories -- compelling material for writers like Peter Hessler, whose new book, "Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China's Past and Present,'' views China through the lives of individuals.

Hessler, a Peace Corps volunteer turned journalist who writes from Beijing for the New Yorker, wrote a critically acclaimed first book in 2001: "River Town,'' his memoir about teaching college English in the Yangtze River city of Fuling in the 1990s. In "Oracle Bones,'' he profiles -- among others -- several of his former Fuling students now trying to make their way in the turbocharged economy of the new China. Their vivid, funny and sometimes poignant experiences inform many of the most affecting passages.

The "oracle bones" of Hessler's title are ancient turtle bones and shells inscribed with an early form of Chinese writing and used to foretell the country's future. Hessler explains how the long, uninterrupted tradition of Chinese writing helped shape the country's character. In the process, he relates a heartbreaking tale of what befell a leading scholar of the bones during China's Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and '70s, and shows how China's break with orthodox socialism in favor of state-sponsored capitalism is shaping the country's future.

Hessler, who speaks Mandarin and has lived in China for 10 years, was quietly confident and serious in an interview at San Francisco's Hotel Monaco. Unlike writers who embrace reams of statistics and charts to tell a big story, he appears skeptical that China can best be understood through numbers -- especially because some of the data bandied about can be unreliable.

Facing challenges

"I heard it said that there were more construction cranes in China than in the rest of the world combined,'' he said -- a slight frown showing he doubted it. "I came to think there are more statistics in China than in the rest of the world combined.''

In "Oracle Bones,'' Hessler recounts what happens when Emily, a former student, set off to Shenzhen, a raw border boomtown near Hong Kong.

Emily followed her sister to Shenzhen, forgoing the job she had studied for -- high school teacher -- to work in a factory, where she had a chance to make more money. Conditions in Shenzhen, where U.S., Taiwanese and Hong Kong companies do low-cost outsourcing (and, increasingly, high-tech research and development) proved grim, especially at the outset. The factory work was repetitive and dull and Emily lived in a crowded company dormitory with a strict curfew and lights-out rule.

"There's not a lot of long-term thinking in China,'' said Hessler, a 37-year-old Missourian who has resided in Beijing since 1999. "The idea is, if you have an opportunity, take it.''

Emily's story eventually took a happier turn. She stood up to an abusive boss, built a nest egg and left Shenzhen for a teaching job working with disabled children. Hessler says that, with perseverance, other workers can master their brave new worlds, too.

Hessler doesn't pull punches in describing bleak living and working conditions, but he is not a muckraker of the new China, either on the page or in conversation.

"To them, it's a better way of life,'' he said, referring to young Chinese who take humble jobs in new cities, work hard to earn raises, salt away money and use it to buy small first apartments and gain entree to the evolving market economy. "I don't think it's my place as an American to tell them that's not true.''

Young people not political

Hessler has a that's-the-way-it-is tone when he discusses the loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs to Chinese outsourcing, and the determination of Chinese workers in their 20s and 30s to desert the countryside and follow the money to China's sprawling boomtowns.

"In the end, not a lot of Americans want to work in shoe factories,'' he said. "That's why we occupy other niches in the global economy.''

Of young Chinese, he says, "This is not a political generation. They tend to be very economically minded. In some ways, I sympathize with them. They went through a lot of political problems,'' he said, referring first to the Cultural Revolution when the new generation's parents and grandparents were traumatized by thuggish Red Guards, and later the shootings of reform-minded students in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Hessler says that the Chinese government's control of media, including the Internet, is an impediment for today's would-be reformers. But he says it's a problem that can be surmounted, and says the recent plunge of Silicon Valley Internet companies Yahoo and Google into the Chinese market will ultimately promote a freer flow of information.

"It's easy to criticize Yahoo or Google,'' he said. "They're easy targets.''

In "Oracle Bones,'' he cites another former student -- who took the English name William Jefferson Foster -- as an example of a motivated person who figured out how to glean forbidden information from the Voice of America and foreign Web sites.

"You don't have to be that savvy to get past the firewalls. The Internet is never going to be controlled, or even close to it.''

Lack of curiosity

However, ordinary Chinese are sometimes guilty of a lack of curiosity, he says, and that -- combined with government restrictions -- slows the flow of critical information.

"It's not always a top-down thing. The people who try to devise ways (of getting around censorship) have had to push. There are certain people who try, but they are very, very few.''

Hessler acknowledges that continuing tension over the huge U.S. trade deficit with China, the country's supposedly undervalued currency, and Beijing's and Washington's suspicion of each other's military ambitions make for a troubled relationship. Both countries, he said, will have to adjust before the relationship can improve.

"China is one country we don't control,'' he said. "You can't change a country that you don't understand. That's the lesson of Iraq.''

As for China, he said, "China at some point needs to move beyond Opium War victimization.'' Only then can it become a confident 21st century nation -- and stand on equal footing with the United States.

E-mail David Armstrong at davidarmstrong@sfchronicle.com.





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