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Saturday, 9 November, 2002, 17:02 GMT
Political apathy of China's young
China is holding its 16th Communist Party congress to anoint a new leader and chart the country's direction for the next five years. Former BBC Beijing correspondent Carrie Gracie returns to China to interview members of the twenty-something generation who grew up alongside the switch to a market economy and a one-child policy.
The jacket of Wei Hui's novel, Shanghai Baby, presents her as a princess with high cheekbones wearing embroidered silk and dangly earrings, so when I get to her address I'm a bit thrown to find myself stumbling through a dark passage and then fighting my way through the washing of the three families who share the first floor.
Emerging above into the cool elegance of Wei Hui's apartment, it begins to fit together though.. although the princess is in tracksuit and ponytail today.
I ask her whether she feels embarrassed to have so much space when the people downstairs have so little, but she says that is a superficial kind of morality which she has no time for.
What she does do for her neighbours is smile. Smiling is important as it expresses consciousness, she explains.
There is not a trace of Chairman Mao's passion for the working classes. No sense of social democracy either. These young people simply believe that life is unequal from start to finish and you have to make the best of the opportunities you have.
Wei Hui tells me she is more interested in sensuality. She introduces her photographs of red roses and Marilyn Monroe, the peach shrine she's made on top of her television, and a little red sandstone Buddha.
But she says the noise helps her concentrate better. Before, all her energy was in her head. She was too rock and roll, too ready to get angry. Now she tries to make herself like water, never offering resistance but letting her spirit flow into whatever shape is offered.
That is a common refrain. Don't fight what you can't control, say this generation, as they concentrate instead on ticking off the material aspirations realized - home, car, holidays, gadgets.
Shanghai is like a fairytale, Wei Hui says. More alive, more crowded, more ambitious than anywhere on Earth.
Young people are overstimulated. They all think they are going to become millionaires, and of course they can't all be millionaires. They are not grounded.
But no sooner is her own meditation over than Wei Hui is flagging down a taxi and rushing off for an appointment at her tailor. She needs a new qipao, apparently.
Qipao is the figure-hugging traditional Chinese dress with high collar and thigh length slits up the side. I wonder why she needs a new one when she already has 50, and she admits gleefully that shopping for pretty clothes is a disease she can't cure.
Her shoe fetish is worse. When she is not wearing black cotton nun's shoes, it has got to be a designer label.
Wei Hui sees no inconsistency here, or if she does, she doesn't care. Like most of her generation she can believe in Buddhism, UFOs, horoscopes and the status conveyed by the designer label... all without worrying about paradoxes or hypocrisy.
She is also very interested in sex and, having just come back from New York, sighs over the prudishness of Americans. China by contrast has a sophisticated and very wild sex scene, according to Wei Hui and, apart from a dreary time under Chairman Mao, always has done.
Like many, she's astonished by the prejudices she discovered the outside world entertaining about China. They think we all have pigtails, practise kung fu and fly from the rooftops, she screeched.
Don't they know that Shanghai is like Paris? Well, they may not know now but they will know soon if China's economy continues to outperform everyone else's in the way it has done for the past two decades.
And if they read Wei Hui's novel Shanghai Baby. It is actually banned in China now, but you can buy it under the counter and now pirate authors are stealing Wei Hui's name to sell even more steamy Shanghai sex romps of their own. She stares down at her nun's shoes and reminds herself to be like water.
Wei Hui's dad is a communist party official, and although she says he used to think she was a monster and feel desperately embarrassed by her notoriety, he has got used to it now and even quite enjoys his party colleagues remarking on what a firebrand his daughter is.
He can no more bring himself to read her novel though than she can bring herself to watch the Communist Party congress. The expression 'generation gap' doesn't quite do justice to how far these twenty-somethings have come from what went before.
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