When Kevin Tu wakes up at 8am to get ready for work, he is already tired. The 31 year-old then spends the next nine hours at his desk at a property agency, sitting in front of a computer or talking to clients on the phone. Then he returns to his one-room flat to watch TV on his own.
Kevin isn’t happy. But he appears largely resigned to his routine.
“Maybe this numbness is just a phase,” he told the Global Times. “Or maybe life will just be this bland for me and I’ll just have to accept that this is it.”
Tu’s life is by no means unusual. In fact, the Chinese media is talking more and more about a class of workers in a similar position, known as “the rubber men”.
The media picked up on the description after it became widely used on the web. It derives from the title of a popular novel written by Wang Shuo. The book follows the lives of a group of young urbanites who gradually lose all hope of achieving their aspirations. They are likened to rubber because they are so resigned to the fate, moulded by society into a state in which they have completely lost all feeling.
New Weekly gives the following description of the rubber men: “They have no nerves, no pain, no efficiency and no responses. Their whole person seems to be made of rubber since they refuse all new things and ideas, pay no attention to praise or criticism, and have no sense of shame or pride.”
The magazine goes on to say that rubber men are typically found in white-collar positions – such as doctors, bankers, computer programmers and teachers.
That sounds like the type of urban professional normally thought to be the chief beneficiaries of three decades of Chinese economic development. Unlike migrant workers who leave their hometowns to work long hours for low pay in factories or on construction sites, or rural peasants still toiling on the land, this emerging middle class is supposed to be a lot happier with its lot.
Instead the rubber men are said to face problems of their own: especially the need to keep up in an increasingly materialistic society. As sociology professor Zhou Xiaozheng told the Global Times: “We are all slaves these days.”
Self-indulgent tosh from people with enough time on their hands to rue their lot? Maybe.
But perhaps some similarities can be drawn with Japan’s white-collar workers, the ubiquitous salarymen. The backbone of Japanese corporate culture, the salarymen are often characterised as putting the hours in at the office, but largely lacking in initiative or the ability to think independently.
During the peak of Japan’s economic boom in the late 1980s, the salarymen had a different image. They were then portrayed at the forefront of the nation’s progress, at a time when Japan was assumed to be on an inexorable path to economic dominance (sounds a little familiar to the China cheerers).
But after the Japanese real estate bubble burst, the salarymen lost their glow, to be presented instead as more cowed individuals, fearful of losing their jobs as the economy stagnated.
In effect, they seemed to be held up as representative of Japan’s economic mood.
With China’s economy booming, the rubber men are perhaps indicative of something else: a nation that has changed so fast that it is now experiencing unprecedented social and psychological strains. WiC has explored this issue before (see WiC59, Talking Point and WiC53, Society and Culture).
Then again, for the older generation of Chinese workers, many of them now retired and struggling on inadequate pensions, mention of the rubbermen will occasion a rolling of the eyes. Far better to spend the day on the phone or tapping away on a computer keyboard than planting rice or sweltering through manual labour at a steelworks.
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