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China’s Theme Song: Can I Swap GDP for Disposable Diapers?

Shanghai SkylineDisposable income growth for Chinese urban households slowed over the second quarter compared to last year. Photo courtesy of Carlos Barria/Reuters via Getty Images.

Paul Solman: In economic data released Monday, China’s economy grew just 7.5 percent in the second quarter of this year, down from 7.7 percent growth in the first quarter, and down significantly from the 10 percent or so growth rate it’s been averaging over the past three decades.

And in a closer look at how Chinese people are faring day-to-day, disposable income growth for China’s urban households slipped to 6.5 percent over the first half of this year compared to 9.7 percent growth in the first half of 2012.

The dip in growth has its leaders and economists nervous that China may fail to meet its 7.5 percent growth target for the first time in 15 years. But what of the economic fate of ordinary Chinese people, particularly those caught in the dramatically widening wealth gap?

Fulbright Scholar and comedian Jesse Appell, whose stand-up routine (in Chinese) can be seen online, is back in his role as our far-flung correspondent in Beijing. Now, he looks at the strained circumstances of the average Chinese family through a music video about a girl named “Zheng Qianhua”–a name that means, literally, “make money to spend.” The Chinese, it seems, are consumed with issues of consumption, but the song suggests an undeniable economic desperation too.

Jesse is trying to help China, in however small a way, move beyond primitive capitalism by emphasizing commonality instead of “cutting down” the competition. (Check out his viral video parody of “Gangnam Style” at the bottom of the post).

Jesse Appell: As a 22-year-old American comedian in Beijing who tries to make Chinese people here laugh, I need to find common ground between cultures to use for jokes.

One area I have happened upon is economics. As a recent U.S. college graduate in China, I discovered that I share the insecurity of my generation with my Chinese peers. It’s true that Americans in China like me can always make a good salary teaching English. But those of us who don’t are paid local salaries to work long hours, just like local Chinese.

As in America, the income gap between “normal” Chinese people and the rich is astounding. Even someone like me, who would be considered successful for my age, makes a fraction of the money of those who invest in real estate and stocks or work for the government.

Among young Chinese, as is the case among many young Americans, I sense a great degree of helplessness. This dilemma is vividly expressed by an artist called Chuanzi. Chuanzi’s music has to do with the struggles of everyday people. His songs include tracks such as “House Slave,” about Chinese families who feel enslaved by high rent, and “I Want to Get Married,” about the difficulties of finding a suitable wife in a country with a skewed gender ratio and women looking to raise their social status by marrying up.

Chuanzi is from southern Beijing and learned to play the guitar while in prison for disorderly conduct. He runs a bar where he sings at night, and sometimes his dog Toot-toot sings as well. After Chuanzi achieved a degree of fame on the Internet, an acquaintance asked him to write a song about his daughter. The family name was Zheng. The parents dubbed her “Zheng Qianhua.”

The last name here is “Zheng,” while “Qianhua” is actually the first name. But the “Qian” of Qianhua is also the word for “money,” and “hua” means “spend.” Since the last name (Zheng) is a homonym for the verb “to make” or “to earn,” the title refers to a person whose name is “Make Money to Spend.”

Chinese names are meticulously picked to reflect the parents’ wish for the child. In this case, it was to make a lot of money. Chuanzi was shocked, but vowed to write the song to reward Mr. Zheng for his “bravery” in naming his child so unabashedly.

The YouKu video’s full title is “a song dedicated to hard-working parents earning money to raise their children: Zheng Qianhua”:

Little baby, when you arrived in this world
Did you know how excited daddy was?
We invited over many good friends
And gave you this beautiful name
From this day onwards, you will be called Zheng Qianhua:
The “Money” character from “Make Money,” the “Spend” character from “Spend Money.”
Your daddy is poor; from now on, you must rely on yourself.
Little baby, when you arrived in this world
Did you know how happy you made mommy?
She knitted you a nice sweater
I know it will look so pretty on you.
From this day onwards, you will be called Zheng Qianhua:
The “Money” character from “Make Money,” the “Spend” character from “Spend Money.”
Your daddy wants to be a good man
And give you and mommy a warm, comfy home.
But, my darling, do you know?
It’s so hard to make money nowadays.
It’s so hard to raise one child,
Is there even a need for a one-child policy?
The great fatherland is overflowing with money
What does 40 trillion Yuan (economy bailout amount) have to do with me?
The GDP we’re so proud of keeps growing
Can I swap it for disposable diapers?
Darling, your name is Zheng Qianhua
Daddy wants to help you but is powerless to do so
So from now on you will need to fend for yourself
Daddy can only wholeheartedly wish you well
Wear plenty of clothes, don’t get sick
If you study well, you might get some aid
When you get older you can make money to spend
And then daddy will wish you the best
But, my darling, do you know?
It’s so hard to make money nowadays….

China has pulled hundreds of millions out of poverty in the past few decades, a feat unrivaled in world history. It is catching up with the United States at a remarkable pace. But at the same time, people are discovering a large gap between the poor and the wealthy, and it’s in that gap that almost all Chinese find themselves. People who now consider education, food and diapers to be basics are finding that even though they make 100 times what they did decades ago, the costs of paving the way forward for one’s children are still beyond them.

This is where Chuanzi’s song strikes a chord in the hearts of Chinese parents: he captures the love of the parents for their children and their desire to give them the best. But he also captures the hopelessness many parents feel — the only way to give their children a chance to make it is if they make money themselves. And what better way to do that than to name the child, instead of “Precious Dragon” or “Beautiful Lily”, something along the lines of “Make and Spend Money.” Such a name says, “If I can’t make your life better, then the least I can do is wish you good luck at making it yourself.”

High-visibility materialism is rampant in China. Every day I nearly get hit by at least three BMWs and one Mercedes while crossing the street. (Note the similarity to upper-crust American drivers as Paul reported on here recently.) Western companies provide high-end services, and luxury goods have oversaturated Beijing and Shanghai and are now overflowing in the interior. Money is paramount in China, and everyone wants to make it.

But Chuanzi’s song is not about materialism. His song is about the Chinese who don’t worship money for money’s sake but for how it can lead their kids to a better life. Money can hire English tutors to teach them the language of globalization. Money can get kids into better schools to score higher on tests. Money can buy instruments and instructors to expose them to the arts.

This is the China that can’t help but be obsessed with money because the new opportunities in this country will be grasped by those with the money to take advantage of them. Sound familiar?

There is so much in common between Chinese and American economic culture right now. Both nations are trying to figure out their role in the global economy. Both societies openly question the role of wealth inequality and how the market and governmental systems relate to it, but neither has figured out what one might do about it. Both decry economic bailouts and wonder why the huge sums of money put forward to save the struggling economy have seemed to make little improvement in most people’s personal lives.

But there is also a crucial difference between the two economies which reflects the gap that still exists between them: in China, there is no social safety net. In America, by contrast, there are food stamps, unemployment support, disability insurance (with 14 million recipients) and much greater access to public goods such as quality education and even a clean environment.

Parents in America who go through a rough stretch will have to live lean, but they will almost surely be able to eat and continue to send their kids to school. This is by no means guaranteed in China. There are no public food assistance programs. In many parts of the country, school fees for books and uniforms are still beyond the reach of many rural poor. A temporary loss of income can be disastrous.

As China’s economy grows, the country becomes more and more like America and other western nations in predictable ways. But there are still devastating differences. We can all empathize with the dilemma Chuanzi lays out in his song. But seeing our similarities (from this side of the Pacific) makes the difference between us all the more poignant. The safety net that Chinese see as a reflection of our advanced state is the same safety net Americans argue about preserving.

Jesse’s video parody of “Gangnam Style” went viral in China and briefly flared up here in the U.S. as well. Read about it in his post here last November and watch the video below. You can also watch him discuss it with an amateur video blogger in China.

This entry is cross-posted on the Making Sen$e page, where correspondent Paul Solman answers your economic and business questions

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