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Book Review: ‘Private Revolutions’ by Yuan Yang

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PRIVATE REVOLUTIONS: Four Women Face China’s New Social Order, by Yuan Yang

There’s an unforgettable moment in Yuan Yang’s new book, when an idealistic university student is tasked with conducting a survey by going door-to-door to random addresses in Shenzhen, China’s manufacturing megalopolis.

In one poor neighborhood, the female student asks a young man, living in a tiny apartment with four other adults and a baby, to rate his current job satisfaction. His immediate reaction is to ask whether she has been sent by the Communist Party.

Though she denies it, he responds, “I’m guessing they did send you, so let’s just say we are completely, utterly satisfied with everything in our lives.”

That story, which takes place in the early 2010s, highlights Yang’s concern with the fate of China’s laborers, as well as the class distinctions that structure the encounter.

In 2016, Yang returned to China, where she had spent her early childhood, to work as a journalist for The Financial Times. Over the next six years, Yang followed four young women as they navigated what she calls China’s “new social order.” All of them, like Yang, were born in the late 1980s and 1990s, coming-of-age after the “optimistic giddiness” of their parents’ generation, one characterized by increasing prosperity in the wake of Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms in the 1980s.

Leiya, June, Siyue and Sam (the neighborhood surveyor) must contend with a very different economic landscape — one underscored not by giddy optimism, but by anxious precarity.

As Yang notes, she happens to have been on the ground just as “deepening political repression and censorship” in China — coinciding with Xi Jinping’s rise to power in 2013 — made it ever more dangerous for journalists and their informants to shine a light on social problems that the Communist Party would rather not discuss. The riveting book that results from Yang’s persistence is a powerful snapshot of four young Chinese women attempting to assert control over the direction of their lives, escape the narrow confines of their patriarchal rural roots and make it in the big city.

In so doing, these women are traversing what is arguably the biggest socioeconomic hurdle in Chinese society — the rural-urban divide. The Maoist-era household registration system was relaxed under market reforms in the 1980s and early 1990s, such that rural migrants could move to China’s coastal cities for work, powering the factories of the country’s economic boom.

And move they did, with now more than one-third of the country’s labor force considered to be rural migrants. Yet, huge hurdles remain: Such migrants are still by and large denied key social services in cities, such as pensions, medical care and education for their children.

Yang’s reportage offers up the raw human stories behind these colossal numbers. Because she documents each woman’s journey from childhood, including encounters with casual sexism, intermittent personal violence and the impossible weight of parental expectations, we can appreciate just how far they have come as adults — and just how far they have to fall.

Two of the women escape the confines of their villages through education: June beats the odds and becomes a university student and then a tech worker, while Siyue manages to parlay a lousy private university education into an unexpected career as an English interpreter, tutor and entrepreneur. Another, Leiya, takes the most direct track out of her village by going to work in a Shenzhen factory as a teen, eventually becoming an organizer for workers’ rights.

Middle-class “success,” however, offers no respite: Exhaustion is palpable as these young women continue to hustle and grind just to stay afloat. As Yang explains, this is the omnipresent Chinese fear of “falling off the ladder.” And over the last 30 years, as massive socioeconomic inequality has taken root, “the ladder has grown very tall.”

The social milieu that Yang’s subjects inhabit, hovering between rural pasts and urban futures, is riddled with uncertainty. Lives and destinies can change overnight, with one pen stroke — and an ensuing new government policy.

The wildly successful educational company that Siyue creates, for example, loses much of its staff once the government decides to crack down on the relatively unregulated private tutoring industry. Leiya’s careful navigation of a byzantine points system to ensure that her daughter has a chance at entering a desirable school in Shenzhen is derailed when the school district map is redrawn. These setbacks offer no time for self-pity or reflection: Pivot they must, and they do, in order to survive.

We celebrate when Siyue, who never marries but gives birth to a child on her own, decides to raise her daughter in the company of other strong, single women. At that point, even her own highly critical mother admits: “Why bother getting married? If you’re a girl making money, in the modern world …” She doesn’t complete the thought, but it’s a notable victory.

These bursts of light, unfortunately, come all too seldom for the book’s protagonists, and feel less likely still going forward, as government policies under Xi squeeze all the breath out of Chinese civil society. The book’s ending remains unresolved, as the lives of Yang’s subjects continue to unfold.

The question remains: If only private — not political — revolutions are open to China’s citizens today, are these self-transformations truly enough? How many times must you have your source of livelihood smashed, see your savings squandered in a bum real estate deal or fail to find work as a college graduate before you give up and “lie flat” — or, for those with means, move abroad?

The vast majority of China’s workers today have no other choice: They must keep on climbing the ladder.

PRIVATE REVOLUTIONS: Four Women Face China’s New Social Order | By Yuan Yang | Viking | 294 pp. | $30

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