From 1949 to 2019, China underwent a tremendous transformation. The historical events of the past 70 years have left no Chinese person untouched. The ups and downs of lives that are easily overlooked can serve as leads for fleshing out a broader narrative – one that runs from the establishment of the PRC through the Chinese economic reform and on to the new era beyond.
Looking back on the past, these people were the witnesses of history who experienced it firsthand. Looking ahead, they are the ones who drive and create the future.
Here are the stories of five ordinary Chinese as a retrospective survey of the last seven decades of change – the greater story of China as told by individuals amongst generations of its people.
Huang Juan: Get out of the system and find yourself
In 1994, when Huang Juan, a Shaoguan, Guangdong resident, left school after graduation, everything around her was changing and developing. After Deng Xiaoping’s Southern Tour Talks in 1992, a new historical era of Reform and Opening Up began in China. The tide of the commodity economy surged forward, and the city developed rapidly. Everyone had built up an untiring momentum, and as long as one put in the necessary effort, anything seemed possible. Hong Kong singer Sally Yeh’s Xiao Sa Zou Yi Hui (i.e., “Go in Style”) was then popular all over China. “I’ll bet my youth on tomorrow, and you exchange sentiment for life. Time doesn’t know human sorrow, so why not just go in style,” went the anthem of recklessness and freedom, indicating the unique spirit of that era.
An undercurrent surged across Chinese colleges and universities. College students such as Huang Juan were caught in a period of transition between old and new, and both they and the higher education system with which they were so closely linked underwent significant changes.
Against the backdrop of rapid economic development, enterprises also had a high demand for talent. Now that the state had eliminated job allocation, for college students, personal development meant more opportunities and space for free choice.
In the era of the planned economy, college students were the pride of heaven and the “quasi-cadres” of the nation. Upon graduation, they were each assigned work, which was uniformly distributed by the state. Then, in 1993, the Chinese government proposed an overall reform of the employment system of “guaranteed work” and “guaranteed cadre” status for college graduates. In 1994, the former State Education Commission issued documents to implement “joint enrollment”, putting in place reforms in enrollment, fees, and employment for the College Entrance Exam, proposing that graduates be allowed to “choose their own careers” within a certain range. This policy was formally implemented in 1996, and after several years of adjustment and transition, the distribution of graduation packages for college students was formally withdrawn from the historical stage in the late 1990s.
For Huang Juan, who was 21 years old at the time, her future after graduation was a major life decision she had to make. During that period, Guangdong Province appealed to countless spirited young people. “People from every point on the compass come to Guangdong to get rich” was a popular saying then. Against the backdrop of rapid economic development, enterprises also had a high demand for talent. Now that the state had eliminated job allocation, for college students, personal development meant more opportunities and space for free choice.
“At that time, some employers started to go to college campuses to recruit workers,” says Huang Juan, noting that though campus recruitment is an important channel for enterprises to recruit future employees today, it was relatively new to see companies promoting themselves and seeking talent on university campuses in the 1990s. Many students could not be certain that leaving their hometowns and entering an unknown enterprise was an ideal choice for their career development.
I joined a state-owned enterprise
As time has gone on, people’s views on choosing a profession have changed. Among Huang Juan’s classmates, some chose to leave northern Guangdong Province, heading south to the rapidly developing Pearl River Delta, while others chose to stay and take up positions or posts in different work units. Huang Juan chose the latter path, joining the local China Construction Bank after graduation.
Huang Juan says that as a member of the 1970s generation, she entered the world armed with the tradition of simplicity and thriftiness inherited from the previous generation.
Joining a state-owned local bank meant becoming “personnel within the system”. In most people’s minds, this label implied complete security and relatively good welfare treatment. Despite the impact of the market-oriented mindset of the 1990s—which led to a wave of entrepreneurship that saw many civil servants abandon their “iron rice bowls” and resign or retain the job with suspended salary—for most people, stable state-owned work units still held a great deal of appeal.
Leaving school and entering the workforce is always an important step in life. Huang Juan says that as a member of the 1970s generation, she entered the world armed with the tradition of simplicity and thriftiness inherited from the previous generation. Her parents had taught her that she should follow the rules and work within the work unit, do things according to routine, respect her colleagues, and put respect for the collective as top priority. She should be conscientious, do her best, and work hard so that she could achieve a sense of self-worth. This was the work ethic shared by most young people at that time.
In speaking of her first job, Huang Juan notes the sound, rigorous mechanism of a state-owned commercial bank, saying, “If we compare the financial environment to the sea, then we can regard state-owned commercial banks as aircraft carriers.” The size, stock, and stability of state-owned banks are sufficient to carry out the nation’s financial mission, and the employees working on this huge ship are like the parts of the machine, with a complex structure that works through a meticulous division of labour.
For the next two decades, Huang Juan worked in the financial system work unit. Through her own effort, she gradually rose from the level of bank clerk to become the president of a sub-branch and a mid-level branch manager. Recalling her experience in the bank, she says that in the view of outsiders, working “within the system” means comfortable work with no surprises, but from her own perspective, it comes with a fair amount of struggle and a good deal of work pressure. Through this process, she has gained much, including a particular understanding of how financial institutions operate.
The time Huang Juan spent working “in the system” was a period of great change throughout Chinese society. Globalisation and the rise of the commodity economy and consumerism deeply impacted everyone, changing people’s perception of society. People’s values and outlook on life were affected by the surrounding environment in subtle ways.
After 24 years of working in a state-owned commercial bank, Huang Juan chose to leave. Last year, she resigned from the bank and joined a fund management company in the Pearl River Delta, transforming herself into a senior wealth consultant.
I want a new beginning, a new chapter
Looking at the external environment, the China-US trade war officially began last year, causing concern for China’s economic prospects. From a personal perspective, when Huang Juan resigned, she was already senior staff in the banking system, so the decision to quit her job with its stable income and turn to a new field at this time came as something of a surprise to her family and close friends.
She says, “It seemed there was a voice in the dark telling me to boldly jump out of the deadlock and explore new possibilities, rather than continue to live a life that can be seen in a single glance.”
“For the older generation, of course, they want their children to work and have a stable livelihood,” Huang Juan says. She admits that she spent a good deal of time patiently explaining her thinking to her parents before she ultimately gained their support.
She points out that in the information age, people’s thinking is constantly being influenced. As a member of the 1970s generation, which grew up in the milieu of Reform and Opening Up and social transformation, she has experienced an initiation into new ideas and new things. In recent years, the number of people who job-hop or change careers, leaving “the system”, has increased. These workers have voluntarily abandoned their comfortable jobs and changed their way of life in a move toward self-realisation. This idea is not restricted to young people, with some senior workers also making such a choice.
But after more than a year of working outside “the system”, what she has seen and heard has made her relieved that the change only came at this age, as the years of maturation and accumulation have allowed her to escape the fickleness and illusion in the middle of the transition.
A new beginning means a new life or a new chapter in life, and it has proved to be one of the most important turning points in Huang Juan’s life. She states frankly that it was a decision to follow her heart. Times have changed dramatically, and everyone, everyplace, and everything around her is constantly changing. She says, “It seemed there was a voice in the dark telling me to boldly jump out of the deadlock and explore new possibilities, rather than continue to live a life that can be seen in a single glance.”
Huang Juan says that her new job has brought her a completely different experience in life. Comparatively speaking, working outside “the system” is much riskier and more challenging. One must be alert to meet whatever changes come along and be prepared to be impacted by sudden human factors beyond her control. At the same time, this sort of environment more readily stimulates one’s subjective initiative, bringing about more rapid growth and helping to overcome one’s weaknesses.
She said that from the outside, it seems rather late for her to jump out from “the system” at this age. But after more than a year of working outside “the system”, what she has seen and heard has made her relieved that the change only came at this age, as the years of maturation and accumulation have allowed her to escape the fickleness and illusion in the middle of the transition. Without her earlier experience of being strictly restricted by the rules and regulations of her work unit, she may not have been able to face or handle some things as well as she has.
I will always work and never retire
Comparing the jobs inside and outside “the system”, Huang Juan says that both enriched her life, and each had its own advantages and disadvantages. She says philosophically, “If you choose one sort of life, you must give up the other.”
“If you don’t set limits on yourself, life won’t limit you,” she says.
Now, Huang Juan volunteers in her spare time, helping out at an old folk’s home and volunteering as a teacher at a school for the hearing impaired. Caring for others and providing warmth in this way has simultaneously brought her peace and happiness. “In the past,” she says, “we all wanted to be successful in our careers, hoping for promotions, raises, and recognition from the leadership.” Now, by contrast, she does not equate her self-worth to fame and wealth, nor does she measure it by these standards. Instead, she sees doing something good for society as the way to achieve greater self-actualisation and inner strength.
“If physical strength permits, I hope I will always work and never retire,” Huang Juan says, while also acknowledging that she is still adapting to her present life. However, if she maintains her ability to learn and dares to try and explore new things, life will continue to hold many exciting experiences and possibilities. “If you don’t set limits on yourself, life won’t limit you,” she says.