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Peter Hessler is a staff writer at the New Yorker, where he served as Beijing correspondent from 2000 to 2007. Harper Collins just released his latest book, Country Driving, which chronicles the past nine years of his experience living, writing and, most of all, driving in China. My colleague Spencer Woodman recently asked him six questions about his new book. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
1. You talk about a pervasive internal turmoil felt by modern Chinese people. What is the cause of this?
When outsiders look at China, the instinct is to think about it politically, and there’s this deep interest in China’s political situation, and whether it’s going to change, which has a lot to do with the Communist Party being in charge. The longer I lived in China, the less impressed I was by that type of turmoil—it’s a very stable place politically.
But I did feel that, internally, people were very unsettled; the biggest source of turmoil is definitely emotional and personal. It comes from having so many new challenges and having their environment change so dramatically. You have all of these people—140 million—that have just left the countryside. And even people who haven’t left their former homes have seen their neighborhoods and cities radically transformed. Their opportunities are radically different from the past, and the challenges they face are radically different. All of that puts pressure on people. In the material sense, things have improved enormously. But despite that, it’s not true that everybody’s happier, which is something that I think is inevitable when a place moves so quickly.
2. You sometimes refer to Chinese “peasants” and sometimes to “farmers.” What’s the difference?
When the term needs to capture the sense of how these people are looked upon by the city folk, I’m more likely to use “peasant.” And when I’m trying to do it in a more functional way, I try to use “farmer.” That’s what I decided for this book. Maybe it’s an imperfect solution. A lot of it has to do with the fact that these are people who don’t own their land; it would be a strain to say it’s a feudal system, but there are elements of that. They are treated very differently in the legal sense. They dress differently and their skin is darker from working outside. Their hands are rough; they wear very simple clothes; they wear military surplus uniforms—these are all things that Chinese people notice. But there is a real legal issue for them, and their legal designation is quite different. Their relationship to the land is really dated. They don’t own their land, and they can’t sell it.
3. You describe rural Chinese people’s contact with urban life as “disorienting.” How do you mean this?
In the village, it meant having increased contract with cities like Huairou or Beijing, where they would go to do business or to make new contacts or buy things that they needed. Or having city people come into the village. This is disorienting in many ways, sometimes good and sometimes bad. For example, for Cao Chunmei, the wife of the family I write about in the village—contact with city people ended up making her religious. She took an interest in Buddhism set up a shrine, and that was directly because of hearing city people talk about religion. Her husband responded in a much different way, and became more materialistic, more focused on appearing like a city person. It puts pressure on everybody to try to figure out how to fit into this new economy, and how to make the transition from countryside to city.
4. The experience—both hilarious and terrifying—of driving in China underlies the book. Tell us about China’s relationship with the automobile.
It’s a massive change and symbolic in the sense of this whole issue of learning new things, which is one of the big stories about this new generation in China. Cars serve quite different functions in China. I don’t know anyone in China who doesn’t use public transport. Even if they do buy a car, they will still be using public transport for a lot of things generally. Whereas in the States, I know lots of people that don’t use public transport at all, because we live in areas that just don’t have it. So in the end it serves a different function—driving is always more of an optional thing in China. It’s not so much that you need it to live in the suburbs. In the end, you’re not going to have a situation where every Chinese family has two cars. I think it’s logistically and economically impossible. But driving has become very important for their economy, and the government has certainly encouraged it.
Driving itself is totally chaotic. They have training courses that I describe in the book where the people who are teaching people how to drive don’t know how to drive themselves—it’s the blind leading the blind. There’s also a section in the book where I describe that people drive the way they walk; they do it instinctively. They don’t really use turn signals and they rely heavily on automobile body language—you just look at the car ahead of you and if it’s inching a little to the left, maybe it’s about to make a turn. It’s a type of directed chaos, and it is dangerous.
5. Country Driving is filled with emptying rural villages. What will countryside look like in 10-20 years?
It’s hard to imagine because right now you just don’t meet young people who want to stay in the villages. We’re going to continue to see this out-migration. China had something like 900 million farmers in 1978 when the reforms started. You just don’t need that many farmers. They were working tiny plots of land where labor was underutilized, so, in economic terms, it’s inevitable and probably a good thing. When you talk to experts, what they would like to see is farms becoming specialized and consolidated so that you still have people farming but they end up with bigger plots because everybody else has left. When you have bigger plots of land it’s more efficient, instead of all of these small areas divided by footpaths and other delineations. That’s the thinking, but the reality is that the land-use laws often keep that from happening. Before we know what the countryside is going to look like in the future, we need to know how that question is going to be resolved—the whole issue of whether people in the countryside can buy and sell land.
6. Your descriptions of child labor and exploitative working conditions in Chinese factories seem almost outweighed by your excitement for China’s new opportunities for upward mobility. Have sweatshops been good for China?
Well, I wouldn’t call them sweatshops because that’s a loaded term. I would call them factories or workshops. Those jobs have given people a lot more mobility. When I drive through villages, I tend to feel a lot of nostalgia for these places, but, as I acknowledge in the book, these were very poor communities, and young people often felt trapped and didn’t have many options.
I describe these young girls who are working in these factories—and in some ways, it’s awful—they’re 15 years old and doing very basic assembly line work, but you see them really gaining in confidence. After following them for a couple of years, they really are different people in a way they wouldn’t have been if they if they were still in school, which makes you reevaluate your assumptions. That’s not to downplay all the terrible things that happen, and all of the exploitation that’s definitely a part of it—it’s a pretty unregulated system. There are a lot of laws, but they are often not enforced. It’s not what we would consider to be a fair system, but it’s highly functional. What that means is that everybody knows what’s going on. They know the rules. They know what it takes to advance and they can see opportunities for advancement.
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“Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'”