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In China, growth may not equal happiness

China this week marks the 30th anniversary of its leap toward capitalism. But with greater prosperity comes many of the worries and alienation that have afflicted other societies.
China 30 Year Happiness
Chinese customers shop at one of the Chinese outlets of the U.S.-based Wal-Mart stores in Beijing on Oct. 12.Elizabeth Dalziel / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Wendy Zhu earns an income that allows her to dine out regularly, travel for leisure and invest in an apartment — a lifestyle her parents could not have dreamed of leading.

But ask if she's happy to have grown up in the 30 years since China took a leap toward capitalism, and the 37-year-old co-owner of a small electronics firm hesitates before responding.

"In my parents' time, we didn't have much savings, but as long as you listened to the party with one heart and followed them, you wouldn't have to worry about anything else," said Zhu, who was 7 when the economic reforms started.

"Now, despite having some wealth, I am constantly worried about the future because there is so much uncertainty."

This week, China marks the 30th anniversary of a pivotal Communist Party meeting in December 1978 that initiated the current era of reforms, marking a shift from the class struggle of Mao Zedong to the pursuit of modernization.

Changes introduced by Deng Xiaoping after Mao's death paved the way for breakneck economic growth that has lifted the annual per capita gross domestic product in the country of 1.3 billion people from 380 yuan in 1978 to about 19,000 yuan — or $2,800 — last year. Hundreds of millions have been lifted out of poverty.

But with greater prosperity comes many of the worries and alienation that have afflicted other societies as they became wealthier and more complex: Having enough money for health care and retirement. Working parents who have no time for their children and adult children who have no time for their parents. The prospect of growing old alone.

Pains of modernization
In Shanghai, retired technician Guan Weihuai recalls the food shortages he experienced 30 years ago as a young man.

"We had to line up outside the grocery store just to buy 10 eggs or a piece of pork. It usually took us several hours, but we still felt so excited because it was rare to get such good food," Guan said as he did some stretching at a fitness area near his home.

"Now, my son buys me things I prefer not to have, like too much food, some useless but costly kitchen appliances."

"I know my son is always busy but still I wish he could just spend some time with me so we could play chess or drink some rice wine," said Guan, whose son is a sales manager. "Unfortunately, when I tried to tell this to my son, he couldn't even finish listening to me because he had to pick up that noisy mobile phone."

The reforms have given people more choices as consumers, leading to a rise in glitzy malls with luxury-brand stores in major cities and international fast-food chains opening outlets around the country.

The wide variety of choices has changed some habits.

Michael Wang, a recent college graduate, says he prefers burgers, fries and soda to traditional Chinese fare.

"I like burgers. I think the flavor is a little better than Chinese food, which can be too heavy," Wang said as he tucked into a lunch of spicy chicken burger at McDonald's after going for a job interview.

"Also, I only drink cola drinks these days. I don't like traditional green tea," said Wang, who gave an English first name although he spoke in Chinese.

Loss of traditions
It isn't only eating habits changed by China's opening up to outside influences. Retired professional stage singer Su Yuping, 65, laments the way increasingly fewer young people are interested in traditional Chinese performance art.

"I can't watch any of those pop songs and what do they call it, 'karaoke'? I'm not used to it," said Su, who performed across mainland China and in Taiwan during her decades-long career as a Beijing opera singer. "The standard of singing is so low. We were trained to project our voices on stage. Now these pop singers all need microphones because they sing so softly, like cats."

Su recalled performing "The Legend of the Red Lantern," one of only eight plays permitted during the decade-long Cultural Revolution, which ended in 1976.

In that era, followers of Mao Zedong, known as Red Guards, destroyed art works and attacked the leader's enemies. At least a million people died and tens of millions were persecuted.

A lonely companion
Cao Fengwei, 76, often thinks about how China has changed as she walks her 2-year-old Pekinese dog, "Little White," past glossy office towers in a bustling Beijing business district. On a recent cold winter day, Little White was wearing a striped turquoise sweater under blue denim overalls and an orange bow on his head.

Not so long ago, pet ownership was frowned on as a bourgeois affectation and dogs were clubbed to death in periodic campaigns against pests. But the Communist Party has withdrawn from many areas of ordinary life, making pets commonplace — a change that Cao appreciates.

Cao, whose husband died three years ago, has trouble sleeping because she owes thousands of yuan to relatives who paid for her treatment for a kidney ailment.

"The reform and opening up is a good thing, but in this new society, the single and elderly people like me — we have difficulties, we have no means. If not for my relatives' help, I would be even more frustrated and sad," Cao said.

Little White is the woman's only companion these days.

"Oh, are you cold, Little White?" she asks the dog when he sneezes and shakes his fur. "I'm grateful that my friend gave me this dog to keep me company all the time, or else I would be so lonely."