Young And Restless In China

Behind the Scenes with Producer Sue Williams

In 2004 producer/director Sue Williams and her small team began to follow nine young Chinese in their 20s and 30s for what would become the film Young & Restless in China. Each year thereafter, she returned to see how their jobs and personal relationships were unfolding, how they were changing and how they saw themselves. China has always been on Williams' personal radar screen. Her grandparents lived there for many years, and her mother was born and raised in Shanghai. Williams grew up hearing about China and first visited in 1980.

  • Related Link
  • China in the Red
    Producer Williams' previous FRONTLINE report (2003) that tells the stories of 10 Chinese individuals -- including factory workers, rural villagers and a millionaire entrepreneur -- caught up in China's ongoing effort to modernize its economy (Watch online)
sue williams with wang ziaolei

Producer Sue Williams with Wang Xiaolei

You've made five films on China now and have spent a lot of time there. In the larger sense, what have you learned over the years, and what is your perspective on where China's headed?

In every film, I've always wanted to give ordinary Chinese the chance to tell their stories from their perspectives. And by listening to them, I've come to see how complicated things there are. And so, like most people who have been working there for a long time, I tend to swing between optimism and pessimism, hope and frustration with the government.

On the one hand, the country has made a great deal of progress since the reforms began 20 years ago: Hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty; people have much more freedom to live their lives the way they want; the country's infrastructure has grown and developed beyond anyone's expectations; and the opportunity to leave their villages and work in factories has given many rural women a measure of independence they never had before.

And yet some things never seem to change, and some are getting worse: corruption, the gap between rich and poor, the collapsing health care system, the terrible state of the environment, the lack of an independent judiciary, the unwavering hand of Party censorship, and the absence of broad political discourse and debate.

How does Young & Restless in China connect to your previous film, China in the Red?

China in the Red aired in 2003, and it explored how the end of communism was being lived by ordinary people. It focused mostly on people in their 40s and 50s and, tangentially, on their children. Since the 1990s the country has been changing so fast that every time I go back, which is at least once a year, I'm amazed. The energy and dynamism of the people is extraordinary. It also feels pretty confused; a raw, roiling mix of rich and poor, modernity and tradition.

Throughout the filming I was struck by how little interaction most Chinese have with the government these days, how little people's lives connect with the state.

In this latest film, I wanted to get to know the people who had grown up under this unique mix of communism and capitalism. I also wanted to think about the future, because these young people who are in their 20s and 30s will be running the country in 10 to 15 years, and I wanted to know what they were like.

What did you learn? ... What surprised you?

Throughout the course of filming I was struck by how little interaction most Chinese have with the government these days, how little people's lives connect with the state. If you go to work every day in an office or factory, you will probably have very little to do with the Communist state until you want to have a child.

I was surprised by how many of our young characters are consciously trying to make sense of what is going on around them, to find meaning in the furious, helter-skelter development. At some level, many of them are looking for something more than just money and materialism.

And I am surprised by the speed of the economic growth and construction. You'd think at some point it would slow down, but it doesn't. Entire new business districts or residential areas are built in just months -- I mean whole acres of new construction and development, not just a few malls and office buildings.

The nine characters -- how did you meet them and choose them?

Pretty much the same way you meet characters for many documentaries. I met the businesspeople through an American consulting firm called Katzenbach Partners. They are doing a 20-year survey of over 100 Chinese MBAs, and I met Ben Wu, Lu Dong, Xu Weimin and Miranda Hong through them. I also wanted to explore several critical issues, such as the health care system and the environment, so I asked friends and colleagues if they knew a doctor in training and someone working on the environment.

I asked the musician Cui Jian for help finding someone who was starting out in the music business, and he introduced me to the rapper Wang Xiaolei. Wei Zhanyan, the migrant worker, used to be a maid for a family I know, and Yang Haiyan I met completely by accident. I was walking by her home in the village in Guangxi, and we just started chatting. When I heard about her mother, I realized we had really found a story.

Compared to previous films you've produced in China, was it easier this time getting access to people?

For the most part it was easier. For one thing, I was not dealing with the state sector or issues of government. In fact, we had as many problems with foreign restrictions as with Chinese ones. For example, when Ben Wu was working with McKinsey Consulting, they would not let us film him at work. And in spite of numerous requests, we were not allowed to film inside Wei Zhanyan's cell phone factory, which is owned by a South Korean company.

I've been working in China for a long time now and am pretty familiar with how permissions work, and also the Chinese government is pretty familiar with me. I'm viewed as a kind of "difficult friend." They know I want to push the limits and will do whatever I can to get the story, but also that I will be objective. With respect to permissions, it is always hardest to film ordinary people -- workers and peasants -- and this film was no exception. Local officials are extremely cautious about allowing crews to film anything that might "make China look bad." And the reality is that for most ordinary Chinese -- workers and peasants -- living conditions are still not great. They are not hungry, but their lives are very basic, and in some areas very hard. So, for example, the local Party secretary in the village where migrant worker Wei Zhanyan rented her little room was furious about us filming there and basically threw us out.

Interestingly enough, after a few initial false starts, we actually had good access in the south, in rural Guangxi. We deliberately picked that area because I knew the local officials there are reputed to be more open, and that proved to be true. They were very relaxed and allowed us to roam all over the village by ourselves and talk with anyone we wanted. And that is where I found Yang Haiyan, whose mother was trafficked and sold.

Filming the businesspeople was usually quite straightforward. With Miranda Hong and Lu Dong, who were working for Chinese companies, we had good cooperation. And obviously, because Xu Weimin and later Lu Dong and Ben Wu had their own companies, we had complete access.

Surprisingly, there also were no restrictions when we followed the environmental lawyer Zhang Jingjing.

The music is really interesting and compelling. Could you talk a bit about how you selected it and the choice of artists?

I wanted music to play a big part in the film and to use a range of what is being listened to in China now, so a friend took me to a company called Modern Sky, China's biggest indie label. I visited their offices in Beijing, sat in on a recording session and listened to some of the bands they represent. I liked the fact that their music is very eclectic and contemporary; sometimes the melodies are punctuated by electronic beeps, clicks and whines. For me, it is like a soundtrack of China today, where practically everyone is connected through their cell phones and, increasingly, on the Web.

And of course, we use quite a lot of Xiaolei's rap music, and not just his recordings. He is such a natural performer that often, instead of talking, he'd just rap, and that allowed us to have music as integral parts of scenes.

A lot of the creative credit should go to our editor, Howard Sharp, and our composer, Jason Hwang. Howard made some startling and, I think, inspired musical choices from the Modern Sky bands and other contemporary Chinese groups. But we felt we needed to tie the disparate elements together, and we worked with Jason, who did this by writing about a dozen pieces that made it all come together.

In terms of politics and big social/economic issues inside China today, did this surface in conversations with your subjects? Tiananmen's impact is mentioned briefly in the stories of two characters, but what is the general comfort level, as you sensed it, in talking about politics, the government?

If you are not recording them, people feel free to talk about everything -- corruption, Tiananmen, the environment and so on. On camera, obviously, they are more constrained. The 1989 Tiananmen Square tragedy, for example, is still a very, very sensitive subject. But we did talk about it with all of them who were old enough to have memories of that time. While they were cautious about discussing it on camera, they found ways to do it.

I should add that all the people who agreed to be in the film were taking a risk. I have tried to represent their lives as accurately as possible, but they have no idea how we have told their stories, how we have cut their interviews, the footage we have used. That is a real act of faith on their part.

What about China's role on the world stage and the accompanying controversies -- the upcoming Olympics; China's involvement in the Sudan, Taiwan and Tibet? Did you sense from your characters an interest or concern about how China today is perceived by the rest of the world?

China is a complicated place and very difficult for foreigners to read. So it was interesting for me to talk with Ben, Miranda, Lu and Weimin -- the business characters -- about how China is perceived in the West. They have all traveled abroad, and, like everyone who is interested in U.S.-China relations, they are concerned about it.

They helped me understand how many Chinese are confused by how negatively they are perceived in the West. Many think that somehow the West is jealous, that Americans are angered or frightened by their economic growth and are trying "to hold China back." As some Chinese joke, you criticized us when we had a communist economy and said we needed to reform and open up to the world; now that we've done that, you criticize us for being too competitive and market-oriented.

There are complicated emotions at play here. The Chinese vividly remember their history when foreign powers carved up China into spheres of interest, and so they are coming out of a long period of humiliation vis-à-vis the West. Like any people, they love their country, and they are proud of the achievements of the last quarter century, and when they see/hear people criticizing them, they don't like it.

It would be hard to overstate the significance of the Olympics for the Chinese. It really is their global coming-out party, and they are proud to show the world how far their country has come in the last 20 years.

The reformers in the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] launched one of the biggest campaigns in the Party's history, designed to make China meet international standards in almost all areas you can think of. They called it "connecting railway tracks with international standards." The efforts included encouraging "civilized behavior" -- e.g., not spitting on the street; limited media openness; efforts in environmental protection; and a softer approach to international criticisms. In business and government operations, people often asserted their arguments by saying, "That's how foreign countries handle this," which meant, "This is the right way." "Connecting with the international railway" legitimized capitalism in communist China.

How attuned are the young to Western media and culture? And how do Chinese citizens access it? And what's off-limits?

There's this idea that everyone is gobbling up Western culture, and to some extent that is true. If you are interested in music or movies or books, you can get them. You can see in the film that Xiaolei has a vast music collection. And, of course, Chinese TV has spin-offs of shows like American Idol, which are just as popular there as here.

Everyone knows about the NBA, and especially the Houston Rockets because of Yao Ming. Basketball and soccer are hugely popular. Foreign films are easily available on bootleg DVDs, so a lot of people know about the latest Hollywood films. In fact, a recruiter at a new law school said that, when asked what inspired them to want to be public-interest lawyers, most people said the movie Legally Blonde.

Some things are off-limits, especially the raunchier aspects of Western rock and rap music -- drugs, violence and explicit sex -- whether in music, movies or online.

The rapper Wang Xiaolei stated, "I can identify with some of those black people in America." What did he mean by this?

He knows from movies and music how young black men in America feel disenfranchised, sometimes disdained, and he sees the same sort of prejudice emerging in China among different social classes. As he says, if you don't have money or education, people look down on you.

I think what Xiaolei is feeling is that Chinese society and politics seem to be moving to a new elitism. The government tries hard to work with the private business sector, entrepreneurs and self-employed intellectuals, co-opting them so they don't become sources of dissent. So these groups are praised in the media and held up as new role models. As personal wealth and success are admired, the accompanying values -- and snobbery -- are permeating society.

Throughout the film, we glimpse the extraordinary pace of change and the hyper-affluence this is bringing to China's young elite generation. But aren't there tensions behind this?

Despite the really serious problems that exist in China, especially the gap between rich and poor, corruption and environmental degradation, it is surprising to learn that the vast majority of Chinese do not have strong negative feelings about the central government. A 2006 survey showed that just over 90 percent of people feel that, overall, China's socioeconomic development has been good and that they had benefited. Most people have seen their incomes rise, and they thought they would continue to do so. So there is a fair amount of confidence in the future, and the vast majority -- again, over 90 percent of those surveyed -- trusted the central government to manage the country well. In addition, most fully agree with the government's position on the subjects of Taiwan and Tibet -- that they are integral parts of China.

In spite of a general sense that the central government is doing OK, there are, of course, many tensions and conflicts in Chinese society, but these tend to be played out mostly at local levels. The biggest issue is corruption -- it is probably the number-one concern -- among both the central government and the local people. Low- and mid-level officials are notoriously corrupt and gouge villagers and the poor shamelessly. We're just seeing how this has manifested itself in the Sichuan earthquake. Parents whose children died in the shoddily built schools are blaming local officials for skimming money, cheating on building materials and ignoring safety standards. The schools that collapsed like so much Lego taught the children of the poorest families. They collapsed while all around, government buildings and hotels barely suffered any damage.

In the film we can see the growing income gap between the well-educated businesspeople and how limited prospects are for people like Wei Zhanyan and Yang Haiyan. And as migrant workers, they are extremely vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Sexism is also a factor. In the countryside, it is always the girls who have to give up their education to support their brothers. We couldn't go into all the details of Haiyan's mother's story, but hers illustrates really brutally the inequities of Chinese society for rural women. Her first name, Zhao Di, means "longing for a boy." Her parents called her that because she was the last of four girls. She never even had her own name, her own identity. She is completely illiterate. She was forced into an arranged marriage. And then when she was trafficked and sold, she was blamed by the villagers, who thought she had brought them shame.

Will the film eventually be seen in China? If it is, how do you think it will be received?

I'm going to be doing some screenings in Shanghai and Beijing in the fall, but I doubt it will ever be shown on television. It may well get into the bootleg DVD market, though. Our historical series, China: A Century of Revolution, is apparently selling briskly in the black market.

Do you have plans to do another China film at some point?

Of course! We want to see if we can develop a continuing series out of Young & Restless in China. It could be really interesting to follow these same characters for an even longer period, over the next decade or so. I am sure other stories will come up, too. China has been part of my life for quite a while now, so I think it is pretty likely I'll be going back.

home . introduction . watch online . nine stories . where's china headed? . "I wanted music to play a big part in the film" .  listen to the music . join the discussion . teacher's guide . live chat with producer sue williams . site map . dvd + transcript . press reaction . credits . privacy policy . journalistic guidelines . FRONTLINE series home . wgbh . pbs

posted june 17, 2008

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