Youth embrace public affection in a time of materialism

BEIJING, China — Young Chinese couples in romantic relationships mingle through the crowd with hands interlocked, hugging or kissing and displaying other forms of affection.

Foreign tourists strolling the Qian Hai boardwalk, a lively sightseeing destination in central Beijing, might not give this level of public affection, common in many other countries, a second thought. Yet it still raises eyebrows in some quarters in China where PDA, or public displays of affection, were virtually nonexistent in Chinese society just two decades ago.

“Certainly young people today are enjoying more freedom of expression,” said Lan Linyou, a professor of Anthropology at Minzu University of China in Beijing. “Lovers holding hands in public were regarded as taboo during my time. “

Lan said that during the 1980s Chinese conservative culture dictated that young people were not allowed to be in relationships and women then could not wear their hair down or walk in heels. China’s focus on such restrictions began to fade when reformists within the Communist Party led by Deng Xiaoping introduced a series of economic reforms in 1978.

“Since the economic reforms, people focused more on making money and getting rich,” Lan said, “so the spiritual pursuit got weaker and the material pursuit got stronger.”

This may be one reason why China’s youth is able to participate in more public displays of affection today.

“Kissing is just a way through which we display our affection,” said 23-year-old Chen Chao while sitting next to his girlfriend near the boardwalk. “Once we love each other, no one can restrict us. I think the old generation may not say their disapproval aloud. If the older generation complains, we don’t care.”

Generally the older members of Chinese society are not used to seeing affection shown in public, said Lan.

“Perhaps others can accept it but I don’t,” said 54-year-old Wei Xinhua, who offers massage services near the boardwalk. “Holding hands is okay, but it’s not quite proper to hug in any places. People’s upbringings are different, and I was brought up in this habit.”

Lan said even though young people have more freedom to display their love in public, they should still save it for the right time and place because it’s a visual pollution that makes people feel uncomfortable.

Chen Ying , an Instructor of Sociology at Capital Normal University in Beijing, said some secondary schools in China have written rules against public displays of affection while on campus.

“We don’t behave this way when we’re on campus,” said 17-year-old Jin Jinghan, while holding his girlfriend’s hand. “We have to pretend to be friends or strangers.”

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Cleaning up Xiejiaqiao’s Yuxi River

XIEJIAQIAO, China — At 20,000 RMB ( $3,080 USD) income per capita, the 801 villagers of Xiejiaqiao have the highest GDP in Henglu Township, which is made up of seven communities located in the mountain greenery of Zhejiang province. Part of that economic success stems from the village’s prosperous pecan and bamboo production–crops that couldn’t thrive without the Yuxi River.

The Yuxi runs through the heart of the village and recently underwent a government-funded cleanup for sewage pollution. According to Xiejiaqiao Mayor Yang Mo Yi, the government invested 5 million RMB  ($770,000) to clean and purify the river between 2008 and 2010.

“Our village was the first to raise questions about protecting the river,” says retired policeman Zhou Jian Guo, who used to lead the watch crew monitoring the river. “We took such actions to protect our environment in order to make our village better and more popular.”

Government officials approached Zhou in 2002 to head a 5-year plan to patrol the river with seven other people. Together, they’ve insured that villagers don’t commercially fish or dispose of their trash in the river, both of which are prohibited by law.

While construction efforts made the river less dangerous above ground, the more recent government funds have helped make the Yuxi safer below the surface.

Henglu’s Vice Township Leader Luo Zhong Ming said manufacturing companies appeared after economic reforms took place 30 years ago and started to pollute the water.

The government has then invested heavily on recreating and maintaining the purity of the river, Luo said.

Signs posted alongside the river’s bank also describe the stages the Yuxi river water passes through during purification.

The water is first collected into giant pools, which are connected to a series of underground network tunnel systems. It then passes through several zones of purification to remove foreign bodies and bacteria before getting categorized as reusable or disposable water.

“On one hand, the villagers live here and they depend on the river,” Luo said. “On the other hand, our river looks beautiful now so villagers can also hold some guests for tourism uses.”

While Yang says the water quality is now “supreme,” bottles and cardboard boxes and other rubbish still collected in the river’s reservoir when torrential rains caused trash to pile up this month.

“The water is not yet drinkable,” Luo said. “The villagers only use the stream for external purposes such as planting or washing.”

Villagers said they are typically happy with the streams condition now but believe the government will continue investing more money on creating better standards for the water.

“People’s living quality has been raised and villagers can live longer now because we have cleaner water to use,” Zhou says.

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Women working uphill against discrimination

BEIJING, China — “I get ridiculed by male customers all the time,” says Fan Baolian, 28, a restaurant manager at the Songlei Business Hotel & Spa in Beijing. “They say dirty words to me like why am I working here when I’m a woman and should be at home taking care of my kid and husband.”

Why would an intelligent, independently minded woman put up with such behavior? Fan says it’s the money. Her monthly salary of 10,000–20,000 RMB ($1,543–$3,087) is more than four times what the average person makes in Beijing. This confers on her a higher status in China’s competitive pecking order.

Despite the constant verbal abuse from patrons, Fan says she doesn’t plan on quitting anytime soon because she wants to use her status to help her younger coworkers, particularly the females.

“I’m like a mother to them. I shadow them and look after them,” Fan says. “I have the ability to make life easier for the peasant girls applying to work here from the countryside.”

Despite new career opportunities that China’s breakneck economic growth has churned up for both women and men in recent years, women too often find it more difficult to improve their social status in the work place.

Ying Li, executive director of the Beijing Zhongze Women’s Legal Counseling and Service Center, which provides free legal services to women, says Chinese women face discrimination in the work place throughout their careers.

“You’ve heard [about] a lot of legislation that’s been promoted by the NGOs and fought for against male dominance within the family,” Ying says. “But in reality, women’s role in society is still comparably low to men.”

Following China’s revolution in 1949, Mao Zedong’s Communist Party stressed gender equality and equal pay for both sexes. The view, at least in theory, was that men and women were equally capable of performing any duty such as working in the fields as well as other manual labor–intensive jobs not centered around the home.

Women, especially those in the working class, still face low wages, sexual harassment and inequality in pursuing higher education according to the All-China Women’s Federation website.

Changes in China’s educational system have helped improve women’s social standing the most, says Lin Lixia, secretary general of the NGO Women’s Watch-China, a nonprofit organization established to protect women’s rights and interests.

“Women migrant workers are regarded as weak people and have the hardest time to find their benefits guaranteed to them,” Ying says. “But it is inevitable to say that China’s social stigma on women has [eased] a lot.”

A balance in education reform between men and women played a key role in women’s pursuit of career opportunities today, says Lin. “A lot of improvement has been made through education reform,” she says. “It was always the male who received an education, but today the male to female ratio at a university level is fifty-fifty.”

China’s contradictory culture makes progress slow to emerge as its past still grips the present.

Li Hongjuan, 24, who lives in a cramped house along the alleyways of Hebei district in Beijing, took a different approach from Fan.

“I abide by my parents wishes to marry my husband, so they could be happy,” Li says. “I thought about finding a good job and working, but my parents didn’t give me that choice. So I moved to live with my husband in the city and started a family.”

Now she is a stay at home wife focused solely on caring for her seven-month-old daughter. Though Li has not achieved as much social status in life as Fan did, both women have made sacrifices for the path they have chosen.

Fan says her 3-year-old son doesn’t even call her mom anymore and her phone never stops ringing because she’s working all the time. Li says even though she is content with not having a career, when her daughter grows up she will push her to pursue a well-paying profession before marriage.

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