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Hints of China's changing values

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COMMENTS

30 May 2011 15:00

Catherine Chan is an environmental lawyer and journalist in Beijing.

China's property developers are admired stalwarts of one of the nation's biggest money-making industries, but they are also known for their lavish lifestyles and outré fashions, and are envied and criticised as some of the most overt capitalists around.

Property mogul Ren Zhiqiang is reviled for infamous pronouncements suggesting those that can't afford to live in their own homes in first-tier cities should go home to their parents' villages and live the rest of their days as peasants. Last year a frustrated 'mortgage slave' threw his shoes at Ren in protest, and Ren now serves as a popular hate-figure for the many millions of Chinese aspiring to a middle-class lifestyle.

While getting rich has been glorious for the burgeoning ranks of China's property barons, Chinese society's lack of a moral compass and how to get back to something approximating true north has long been a hot topic both in internet chat rooms and around dinner tables in affluent Beijing.

It might be nothing more than a canny marketing campaign, but it seems that some property magnates are stepping out of the hyper-capitalist mold. Wang Gongquan, one of the founders of real estate giant Vantone, recently caused a sensation by announcing his undying love for his mistress on China's premier microblogging website Sina Weibo, going underground and remaining apparently incommunicado even to colleagues. 

What would seem a private matter has created a sensation in the online community — Chinese netizens have shown an outpouring of support for Mr Wang for putting romantic love before commercial interests.

Zhang Xin, one half of property developer Soho China's couple extraordinaire, has reinvented herself as a Ba'hai convert who now eschews materialistic pursuits to focus (in conjunction with running her billion dollar business with her husband) on charity work and education.

In fact religion, in particular Christianity, is booming in China, and this apparent move towards a more spiritual path is not restricted to the super rich. Last month's highly publicised crackdown on one of the largest 'house' churches (not affiliated or approved by the Government) showed that the exponential growth of converts to mainstream Christianity extends to the proletariat (laobaixing).

My Chinese teacher, Ms Yang, is a single 30-something independent who would have much in common with her Sex and the City-style counterparts in the West. Except that she has, along with a burning passion for fashion, found God via a South Korean-affiliated evangelist church operating in Beijing. Given the intense social pressures placed on the post-80s generation to support aging parents, compete in a workplace teeming with talent and marry and produce offspring, the appeal of religion offering an alternative set of values is obvious. 'I feel much calmer now,' says Ms Yang.

In spite of extraordinary economic growth, the idea that China's ineluctable rise has acted as an anaesthetic to social discontent may, at the margins at least, be losing steam in the face of increasing disillusionment with excessive consumerism. 

Photo, of the entrance to the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, by Flickr user Stuck in Customs.

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