There was a minor riot in Beijing last week. The Apple store was attacked. Its offence? Not being willing to sell sufficient numbers of the iPhone 4S. Buyers had queued all night and things turned ugly when it became clear that many of those in line had not the faintest idea what an iPhone was. They belonged to teams hired by middlemen who knew that every handset bought was re saleable for an additional £100. The teams of tech-unsavvy people were identifiable to each other by homemade armbands, and when the store staff realised what was happening, they suspended sales. That was when the eggs started flying. In London they riot to steal things. In Beijing, they riot because they cannot buy them.
Even China Daily, a sort of hymn-sheet to the Communist party, reads like the FT much of the time. It reported this month that there were more Rolls-Royces bought in China last year than anywhere else on earth, that Audi now sells more of its brand there than in Germany, and that the company confidently expects to exceed its target of 1m sales between 2011 and 2013, "as long as we can grow annually at 8%", as a senior executive blithely asserted. The target was set less than a year and a half ago.
It is all surface froth, of course: there will still be 1,299,000,000 Chinese who do not buy an Audi. But it is the flaunting of wealth that is so shocking, because the entire economy floats on a sea of migrant workers willing to go anywhere for a day's pay. You can hear them hammering on the construction sites and see them clambering across the half-built highway towers from dawn until long after dusk. Victorian Britain was perhaps similar, and the smog of Charles Dickens's London finds its counterpart in the murk that envelopes Beijing on windless days and tears at your throat like sandpaper. Beijing – once, apparently, a charming ancient city – has been torn down and replaced with a traffic-jammed assortment of functional concrete blocks, interspersed with the occasional stunning pieces of modern architecture.
Embracing capitalism has created a class of urban plutocrats. China is the great emerging force in the world, and the feeling of apprehension everywhere else must be good.
It is customary to attribute China's new wealth solely to its abundance of cheap labour. But it would have been impossible if the country's entrepreneurs had not possessed the sort of work ethic that drove the captains of Victorian industry. People seriously want to get rich. It may not be attractive. But it is more than enough to see off soft, western welfare states that have sold their future for the sake of cheaper televisions and trainers.
Dozy western governments seem to believe that it does not matter much, because somehow their comfortable democracies will coast along on the fruits of intellectual invention. These governments bask in the belief that we can outsource metal-bashing and shirt-stitching because the brains that devise the products nestle inside western heads.
Predicting the future is a job for clairvoyants, not journalists. But I can't see any easy way for the trade imbalance to be equalised. Rather the reverse.
There is, though, one worry the so-called communists in the Chinese government might want to trouble themselves with. One night, while eating in a smart Beijing restaurant, I teased my host by asking whether the other diners were party officials. His instant – and serious – reply caught me out. "Oh no," he said, "they always eat in the private rooms at places like this."
All the best restaurants have these private rooms, so the rich and powerful do not have their meal spoiled by the offensive sight of their fellow citizens. Many of these private rooms serve delicacies the Chinese people can only dream of. Come to think of it, they probably do dream of them. I'm talking abalone, sea slug and pufferfish. I don't know enough about China to assert that this sort of behaviour cannot last. But I do know that it would not be tolerated in western Europe: revolutions have been sparked by less.
Not one young person talked, even in their cups, of revolution. There are too many people doing too well for such thoughts. But it does not take a clairvoyant to ask how long it can last.
Courtesy of The Guardian. Original article here.