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Shoppers crowd under colorful neon lights along Shanghai's bustling Nanjing Road (CLARO CORTES IV/Reuters)
Shoppers crowd under colorful neon lights along Shanghai's bustling Nanjing Road (CLARO CORTES IV/Reuters)

Yunfeng Zhao

As China turns Add to ...

When Deng Xiaoping began to open China in the late 1970s, he said it didn't matter whether a cat is black or white, as long as it caught mice. This motto helped catalyze China into becoming what it is today: an increasingly materialistic, money-worshipping society that has lost touch with traditional ethics.

Nothing captures this moral vacuum more vividly than the recent television drama Wo Ju ( Crowded Spaces), which has been riveting Chinese audiences. The "hero," Guo Haizao, is a fair-skinned and innocent 25-year-old woman living near Shanghai. She follows in her older sister's footsteps in quest of their common dream, to attend one of China's top universities. But even with a university degree, life in go-go Shanghai is not as she had imagined.

"Why is the world so full of unfairness, with the limelight only splashing on the prettiest spots in the city?" she wonders one night, as she worries about her struggle to buy a home with her sister.

As she is told by Song Siming, a handsome, successful, Audi-driving (and married) secretary to the mayor: "On those unsightly corners in the dark where dirt, flies and rats wander, nobody's paying attention."

Song is a resourceful man who oozes charm. Guo soon becomes intoxicated by his air of can-do and success. When problems arise, he makes a quick phone call and gets things "settled." Little by little, Guo finds herself taken in by his charm and abilities. Before long, she is cheating on her boyfriend and swooning into Song's arms - and bed.

When Guo overhears fights between her sister and brother-in-law in their crammed apartment, her aspirations - getting her own place through hard work, starting a family with her boyfriend and soon-to-be husband - begin to fade. She is tempted by the shortcut Song promises and allows herself to be seduced, in turn, for cash and a luxury apartment. Soon, she is even pregnant. Song certainly knows how "to catch mice."

Wo Ju is adapted from a novel about China's skyrocketing city housing prices - especially in Shanghai - and the effect of real-estate fever on young Chinese in "get rich by any means" China. Viewers get a sense of how the Chinese dream has begun to centre around property ownership rather than education or love, and how this change has been transforming society, sometimes in startling ways.

These changes have created a new kind of hope and despair among the generation of Chinese now coming of age. But, of course, the subtext is that, if this fixation has also led to greater pragmatism in affairs of the heart, it has also led to a property bubble that many economists fear could soon burst.

Because this is a soap opera, Song suddenly dies in a car crash as he is rushing to the hospital - while being chased by corruption investigators! - to check on his sweetheart and their unborn baby. It turns out Guo had an abortion just days before, following a dramatic fight with Song's wife.

As fantastic and convoluted as the plot gets, Wo Ju offers a truthful look at what animates contemporary Chinese society: property, money, sex, cars, power. Perhaps because it captures the zeitgeist so well and has become hugely popular, it has also caught the attention of media censors. Indeed, its realistic use of profanity and its depiction of the country's spiritual vacuum got it banished from one of Beijing's TV channels.

While the official media flood Chinese TV and movie screens with Confucius propaganda, ancient fairy tales and kung fu epics, Wo Ju engages a broad cross-section of contemporary society, which sees in it troubling aspects of their own lives: official corruption, mistresses, even house slaves. As Song arrogantly says to Guo before he dies, "As long as it's a problem we can solve with money, then it's not a big problem."

The program has caused a tsunami of online reflection. Many websites and bulletin boards have run surveys with questions such as: "If you were Guo Haizao, would you choose Song Siming and an apartment or Xiaobei [the dumped boyfriend]and true love?" On one of China's largest sites, 46 per cent picked Song, while only 22 per cent chose the young boyfriend, hinting where the new generation's values lie.

The traditional virtues of "true love" have been replaced by pragmatism and a willingness to become a mistress before youth expires and all chances of getting a good apartment are lost. After all, many netizens now argue, doesn't such a practical course save many years of hard work? One recent Internet match-making effort attracted applications from more than 10,000 young women, all seeking a chance to marry a Shenzhen multimillionaire sight unseen. That was not the first lottery marriage in today's China, and it surely won't be the last.

The most interesting thing about Wo Ju may be that most viewers do not dislike Song, the string-pulling secretary. Indeed, while he may be cast as an anti-hero, he is considered a "good catch" in contemporary China. More and more young women are making just such practical choices: putting an apartment before love and pragmatism before principle.

Yunfeng Zhao is a writer and multi-media producer at the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society.

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