The label of the Greatest Generation has been applied to Americans who lived through the Second World War. The idea was popularized in a book of that name by a former American television news presenter. I admit I've never read the book, but the argument has become well known through popular culture. The idea heroicizes the generation that was born during the great depression and learned to live through tough times. They made great sacrifices fighting the so-called good war, then returned home to work hard and build stable lives, in the process building America into a global hyperpower. That generation is old now and they're disappearing fast. As the story goes, their children the baby-boomer generation have mostly squandered the fortune their parents patiently built.
The mass of Chinese migrant workers could be today's greatest generation of China. These are the people leaving the villages, where the skills they've needed to live have been passed on for hundreds of years, and going to places to do work that is totally foreign to them. They are jumping into the future, doing things that none of their ancestors have ever done. They live in lonely factory dormitories, or in the case of construction workers in tinker-toy temporary buildings made of painted blue steel and white polystyrene panels, with no frills or amenities. In Guangzhou, at lunchtime you can see them eating from foam containers and napping anywhere. At night you don't see them, they go to sleep early. You can see them on the bus or subway traveling to a new job, carrying their possessions in a bag attached to a stick that they balance on their shoulder: some clothes, a fan, a bucket, tools. They always look old for their age.
They do hard and dangerous jobs without a lot of concern for their own safety, often wearing just thin clothes and flimsy plastic shoes for protection. Some even wear cheap business suits and black leather shoes to dig holes and build walls, as if trying to maintain dignity. Whether they are aware of it or not, they are surely sacrificing their health. The toxic dust and fumes that waft uncontrolled around Chinese construction sites, coupled with the insanely loud noise and lack of ear protection, will combine to produce too many deaf cancer patients in the future.
Their motivation is clear. They may be proud of what they are working on, but they are not striking out with lofty ideas to build China into the next superpower. The reason they sacrifice so much is just to improve the future of their family and themselves, the same reason I think that the WWII generation did. The US is the world hyperpower today because of the historical accident of WWII, not because our grandparents wanted it. A student told me that China will become the world superpower after the Third World War is fought. It wasn't that he was wishing for a world war to come. Actually, now I'm not sure what the student was trying to say. Maybe was he simply saying that he thinks it's inevitable China will gain superpower status. Or maybe he was expressing his pessimism.
The American greatest generation is a problematic label. The war was not good, no war is. That generation just did what it was told to do, and they built us a flawed world. Some of the most difficult problems of today, like nuclear proliferation and climate change, are direct consequences of what they started. But I think we admire their self-sacrificing spirit because we think it's rarer these days. How China's migrant workers are considered in future will depend on how the amazing growth of China on the world scene continues to develop. Will their story be a comedy or tragedy?
Are Chinese workers the future greatest generation of China? Will they be celebrated as heroic in the future, even as they are looked down on now?