The Chinese dream, like the American dream, has taken shape around the promise that each new generation will live better than the one before it. In recent years, that has meant more job options, more material comforts, and increasingly, home ownership. Last fall 80 percent of respondents to a China Youth Daily online poll said that home ownership was a prerequisite for happiness.
Today's frenzied housing market in China's top-tier cities is rattling that aspiration, threatening to create a generation of agitated young people who work hard, play by the rules, but feel angry at the system and priced out of their chance at the Chinese dream. With residential prices and commercial prices in top-tier cities jumping 11.7 percent over the last year -- and jumping more than 50 percent in some particularly hot eastern cities -- the government in Beijing is worried.
Chen "Aggie" is a 20-something marketing professional in Beijing. The daughter of shopkeepers, she hails from a small village in the western province of Guizhou. She came to Beijing for college, and has since made the great leap forward that so many families in China hope for their children: moving from blue-collar to a white-collar job. Stories like hers are regular fodder for state-run media. But real estate is where the vision of upward mobility smashes against unhappy reality. Ten years ago, even five, her salary would have made buying an apartment feasible, but not now. "I was born too late," she says. "I missed the train."
According to the investment bank Goldman Sachs, in recent years housing prices in Beijing have risen 80 percent faster than wages. Chen's friends from well-to-do families -- "second-generation wealthy," as they're called -- have been able to borrow money for hefty down payments; her friends from humbler backgrounds cannot. When I met her at a Beijing Starbucks, she was dejected and making plans to leave the city. In some senses, her struggles mean the Chinese capital is just like any other world-class city -- London, Paris, New York -- where only the wealthiest and most established can own homes. But this realization is crashing hard on a generation of little emperors and empresses that have been told they could have everything.
The agitation of China's young professionals is a politically sensitive subject. Recently the government banned one of the most popular shows on television, Wo Ju (Narrow Dwelling), a sort of Chinese Friends set in a city much like Shanghai. The show chronicles the exploits of a young couple with good jobs and degrees from China's finest universities who still can't afford a home, until a young woman has an affair with a well-connected government official. Wo Ju drew millions of viewers and sparked controversy; prominent Chinese writer Xiao Fuxing has denounced the show's equation of home ownership with happiness as a "thorn" in Chinese society. (In big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, it's a truism that a man who can't afford a home isn't worth marrying.) The fact that Wo Ju was deemed so dangerous by the censors only reveals how deeply it struck a chord with China's aspiring classes.