— Lights and Lines

Socialism with Chinese Characteristics

In 1978 for the first time in about 30 years the People’s Republic of China opened to the West. This happened only two years after Mao Zedong‘s death, an event that had enormous consequences on the nation itself; as a matter fact, with the passing away of “The Great Helmsman“, a part of China disappeared as well.
Not much time passed before the Gang of Four were given responsibility for all the atrocities and exaggerations of the Cultural Revolution while Deng Xiaoping started reshaping the basic mechanisms of what was called a “Command Economy”.

The “open up”, the core of this new approach, was exemplified by the creation of special economic zones within the Chinese territory where injection of foreign capitals allowed industrial development and the fast transformation of rural land to factory dependent urban sprawls. It was the first step towards that modernisation we are now all familiar with.
The population found the government shifting towards a market economy that ultimately resulted in the so called “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics“, that is (in a very simplified way) a system that differs from Marx’s teaching in the acceptance of the middle class and the market economy. What was ultimately created was a capitalist version of socialism, basically an oxymoron. Another way of describing this is State Capitalism.

Without getting into more political talk which is not my specialty, the ultimate result was the creation of a striking class division epitomised by the difference in living standards between the rural and the urban population, the rich and the poor, the educated and the uneducated.
An interesting book on the subject is Scattered Sand: The Story of China’s Rural Migrants by Hsiao-Hung Pai, an in depth and eye opening analysis of the reasons behind the existence of migrant workers and their role in the construction of what we consider “modern” China, a country growing at an unbelievable speed and yet still deeply rooted in tradition.

Socialism with Chinese Characteristics - Marco Barbieri - Photography

This is a resume of what I know about the current status of Chinese politics/history.
I recently came back from a trip to China where I fulfilled my tourist role by taking pictures of boring panoramas, annoying old people on the streets and getting excited by ancient architecture. Yet in the little time at my disposal I tried to do something more than being just the casual shooter, this blog post is exactly about that.

What can a foreigner pretend to understand when faced with thousands of years of culture? Probably nothing. Unless you are a master of Chinese studies, the focus needs to shift to something more “doable”: the last decade, that is the moment when the consequences of the market economy shift appeared more clearly. And they are so clear that anyone visiting this country would be able to grasp the fact that China is undergoing an overwhelming amount of transformations that are happening at a rate that cannot be compared to the slower economic boom United States or Europe experienced in the past.

As with every big historical change, winners and losers appear. And so, while there are about 400 million people that are now considered middle class, another 200 are now living under the poverty line. The first group embraces Western ideals, the latter is still very much at ease with tradition. It’s a China that is traveling at two speeds leaving behind those that cannot afford to access the new system, yet in most cases those left behind are in charge of physically creating the new skyscrapers, factories and electronic commodities that the new riches (and us) enjoy. They are the builders sleeping on the streets, the factory workers, the garbage collectors and all the rest involved in odd jobs. This contrast is particularly recognizable in huge cities such as Shanghai, Beijing or Kunming where new buildings are overtaking the traditional hutongs at increasing speed while shopping malls are popping out to cater for the needs of the expanding middle class.
Obviously there are pros and cons: one could easily concentrate on the positive effects many people are experiencing such as access to education, traveling abroad and better work opportunities. At the end the day the biggest middle class in the world is made of people that come from completely different backgrounds.

However, the images I produced focus mainly on the lower classes, on the manual labor and those people I judged as representatives of traditional China as opposed to the modern one. It’s not just a passion for the underdogs that made me select my subjects: it’s the fascination with the fact that poor people have no other choice but to contribute to this new “leap forward” someone else is enjoying.
I am currently trying to make and give sense to a massive amount of photographs to describe in about 20 pictures what I consider the striking example of the difference between old and new I previously saw exemplified in the work of various photographers (see Nadav Kander‘s beautiful work Yangtze: The Long River). The intention is to produce a body of work that shows the uncertainty that many people live in and the constant conflict between tradition and modernity that ultimately results in the creation of an ever expanding class division.

I have included a couple of images I am particularly liking at the moment and that probably will sometime appear on my website. They are possibly a good example of the type of atmosphere I will give to this project.

Socialism with Chinese Characteristics - Marco Barbieri - Photography

Scattered Sand: The Story of China’s Rural Migrants by Hsiao-Hung Pai: an investigation on the reasons behind the phenomenon of Chinese Rural Migrants.
A Chinese Life by Li Kunwu and Philippe Otie: a beautiful graphic novel that portrays more than 30 year of Chinese history through the eyes of an artist.

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