The Next American Dream

In China, not a dream but an obsession

Scott Tong May 12, 2009
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The Next American Dream

In China, not a dream but an obsession

Scott Tong May 12, 2009
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TEXT OF INTERVIEW

BILL RADKE: The 20th century was called the American Century,
headlined by this country’s prosperity, mobility and individualism.

This week we’re looking at what the “American Dream” means abroad. Our week-long series is called the “Next American Dream,” and we begin with Marketplace’s Shanghai bureau chief,
Scott Tong.

Scott, the American Dream means social mobility, physical mobility, of course,
your own self-sufficient castle in the suburbs. What does that dream look like in China? Does the American Dream mean anything there?

SCOTT TONG: Well, I’ve talked to a lot of people, Bill, in China and I haven’t heard anybody utter that phrase before. I think a big misconception that both people in China and people in the U.S. have is, everyone else in the world probably lives and thinks like we do.

One thing that is similar here is the value of home ownership. It might be even more important here in China, but for different reasons. In the last 70 years China has experienced a whole lot of instability — foreign imperialism, civil war, famine — all these things that make people think about instability, and that they want stability. Well, the one thing you can have in China that buys you a piece of the rock is owning your own place. And so it is almost a national obsession.

RADKE: What is this drive to own property done to social life in China?

TONG: Well here’s one giant implication: If you run this question by single guys in Shanghai or any city in China what they’ll tell you is if you don’t own your own place, you basically can’t get hitched. The women will say no. And it sounds like a joke and it sounds funny, but except that it’s true. A lot of women will say, “You know, I need some kind of financial stability in the mate that I pick.” And what does that mean in China? It means owning your own place. So you have a lot of angst there and you have a lot of angst from their parents because parents have one child in China, so it has a giant social implication for single people in China.

RADKE: As China gets wealthy, this is the American perspective: Oh, China’s getting wealthy. They’re going to get like us. They’re going to have a car and automobile-centered life and it’s going to be arranged around suburbs. What’s it actually looking like there?

TONG: You just don’t have the space for everyone to live in a house in the suburbs along cul-de-sacs. Here’s the problem, though. A lot of people are buying cars and they want to own cars for the same reasons Americans do. The planet can’t afford a billion people in China becoming middle-class people, a billion people in India becoming middle-class people developing an American car-based lifestyle. So it would be good for the planet, it would be good in a whole lot of ways, if developing countries like China actually developed a lifestyle that was different, that was unique to their own countries, and that thought a little more about resources because what we’ve learned this generation, obviously, is they’re in much shorter supply than we thought before.

RADKE: Scott Tong in Shanghai, thank you.

TONG: OK, Bill, thank you.

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