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Is China’s an upwardly mobile society? “Ascension” examines the Chinese dream.

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The Oscar-nominated documentary explores the rise of China's middle class, zeroing in on an economy in transition. Visit Films

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The Oscar-nominated documentary “Ascension” opens with a scene from an open-air job market where a recruiter with a megaphone advertises jobs at a local factory paying the equivalent of $2.99 an hour in U.S. dollars. The pay is low by the standards of the cities where many of China’s factories are located, but it’s enough to draw in workers from the countryside with the promise of upward mobility — who might, for the first time in their lives, be able to buy a house or save for retirement.

“When they have children, if all goes according to plan, then their children go to university, get a good job, get good pay and get a better life. Of course, recently, that’s somewhat been challenged because China’s economy is not growing as fast. And so they can’t produce enough high-paying jobs to absorb the graduates. This year, we’re looking at 10 million of them,” Marketplace’s China correspondent Jennifer Pak told “Marketplace Morning Report” host David Brancaccio.

Using close-range vignettes of people making the economy run — from factory workers to executive bodyguards and butlers to would-be ecommerce influencers — “Ascension,” the Econ Extra Credit documentary for the month of June, examines the pursuit of the Chinese dream and how the swift rise of China’s middle class has reshaped the country’s patterns of consumption.

“In the past, Chinese people were mainly manufacturing for people outside [the country], say in America. But now more Chinese can afford these products — mostly in the cities — and so there’s a demand for new services, so that’s also creating more non-factory jobs,” said Pak.

The following is an edited transcript of the interview.


David Brancaccio: In China, as depicted in this film, is this promise that the type of work that you’re seeing — often monotonous, soul-destroying, even, we might call it “dehumanizing.” But the film’s title is “Ascension.” So does it actually work in China? Do you rise up?

Jennifer Pak: For a lot of these families, they have. And so when they have children, if all goes according to plan, then their children go to university, get a good job, get good pay and get a better life. Of course, recently, that’s somewhat been challenged because China’s economy is not growing as fast. And so they can’t produce enough high-paying jobs to absorb the graduates. This year, we’re looking at 10 million of them.

Brancaccio: It struck me watching this that we should be careful about othering China as we view this film. You can find soul-destroying work here in the U.S., depending on where you point your camera.

Pak: Yeah, absolutely. But Chinese workers, like in America, they also believe that if they work hard, they can succeed. What I would say is maybe it’s more intense here than in the U.S. for two reasons. China has 1.4 billion people, competition is fierce. And it’s also built into the pay structure when you’re looking at things like manufacturing jobs. People get a base pay and they earn more if they work more. So here people work long hours, six-day work weeks, and the jobs are lucrative enough, for the past four decades, that we’ve seen people willing to move hundreds of miles away, leaving their spouses and young children behind to work in factories.

Brancaccio: Yeah, in the U.S. we also fervently believe in the American dream. But I have bookmarked a World Economic Forum set of charts, fairly recent, that suggests that upward mobility is getting harder in the U.S., so there’s a contrast there now. “Ascension” also looks at consumption and how China’s middle class are spending on all sorts of things, like wave pools; some hiring Downton Abbey-style butler services. The way they spend is changing the Chinese economy.

Pak: Definitely. In the past, Chinese people were mainly manufacturing for people outside, say in America. But now more Chinese can afford those products — mostly in the cities — and so there’s a demand for new services, so that’s also creating more non-factory jobs. But I would say, to your point, about people feeling that the mobility is not as much or not as easy as before, there’s certainly a sense of that here in China as well — mainly in the cities, where the parents might have already gone to university, and now, as I mentioned before, it’s harder for them to get nice high-paying jobs. But if you’re from the countryside, you’re starting from a very low base. You have grandparents, parents who talk about not having enough to eat, to children now maybe having meat as a regular part of their diet. That’s a huge shift.

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