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Boom and gloom: The struggle for a country's soul

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

Beijing — At the age of 41, Zhang Hongkang seems to have it all.

Rich beyond his childhood dreams, he owns six luxury cars, six apartments, two thriving factories, a real-estate business, a $100,000 gold Rolex, and one of China's most impressive private collections of imperial porcelain and paintings.

For someone who grew up so poor that he had to help his grandmother stitch notebooks together to earn a tiny income, his life today seems to fulfill every fantasy he could have had. Yet he has become restless and discontented, searching for something to fill the spiritual void of frantic capitalism.

”I have everything, but I don't know what to believe in,” the tycoon says in his Beijing office as he flips open his laptop to monitor the latest trades on the foreign currency markets.

”I look at this society and I don't know how to change it. Selfishness and self-centredness have become the only belief in China. Young people only know how to acquire things and entertain themselves. They only know how to spend money. In 15 years, I'm worried that China will become a very dangerous place.”

In an era of extraordinary social change, Mr. Zhang's confusion is that of China itself. Everything has suddenly become possible – yet no truths are certain, few causes are clear, and the beliefs of yesterday are rapidly eroding under the new business obsessions. The people of China are on a quest for an identity, a shared direction, while the reformers and reactionaries fight for its soul.

China's economic boom is one of the most astounding in world history. Its economy has grown by an average of almost 10 per cent every year for the past two decades, the fastest growth in the world, creating thousands of new millionaires. Within two generations it could overtake the United States as the world's most powerful economy. The idealistic spirit of the Tiananmen Square protesters has long vanished, buried in a landslide of money and greed. Yet anger and unrest are still here, just below the surface, in the morass of rural poverty and urban alienation and the widening gap between rich and poor in this country of 1.3 billion.

As the wrenching economic changes stir up new tensions and unrest, the legitimacy of the ruling elite is increasingly questioned. Widely seen as corrupt and antiquated, China's Communist Party is facing one of the most dangerous crises in its history. So far, it has succeeded in diverting and repressing the democratic impulse with a calibrated mix of police-state coercion and patriotic propaganda. But the pressures for reform are mounting.

In a peasant village on Beijing's outskirts, 75-year-old widow Xu Huizhen once thought she knew what China believed in. For eight years, she fought in Mao Zedong's guerrilla army, battling the landlords and capitalists who controlled the old China. In the 1950s, when the Communist revolution was over, she moved to her husband's village near Beijing, where countless generations of his family had farmed the land.

She thought the battles had been won. The land was in the people's hands. Everything seemed clear and truthful.

And then, in the 1990s, the land began to disappear.

It was nibbled away, first slowly and then ever quicker, by China's new capitalists, who were building palatial new $2-million villas in Beijing's expanding suburbs. Nobody quite understood how they got permission to grab the farmland. Nobody in the village had ever seen any papers or documents. But suddenly their land was gone. The peasants were being dispossessed again.

This summer, for the first time in her life, Mrs. Xu joined a street protest. With hundreds of other villagers, she marched to the nearest villas to block a road and demand justice.

Instead, the police descended. Eight of the villagers were arrested. The developers resumed their construction of luxury mansions.

“We fought against those capitalists when we established this country in 1949,” Mrs. Xu said, sitting beside a Mao portrait on her wall.

“We struggled to get the land for the peasants. We thought we would lead a happy life and our lives would become better and better. But now the fruits of the revolution are being taken away. Our land has been taken from us and sold.”

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