Gerard Lemos had this interesting bit in the Times on Sunday. In his efforts to find out what ordinary Chinese were worried about he appealed to an embedded religious custom, "wish trees", not stamped out by the Communist Party. "People tie notes about their private desires to the branches, hoping that the wind will blow their prayers to heaven." From such notes, blown to him rather than heaven, he found that "people had lost their optimism and were yearning for security and freedom from anxiety". And that "income is a primary worry for those who have lost their jobs or land". He describes this from a modern western sociological point of view that completely misses the essential thing that is happening here: this is the Chinese version of what late Medieval England called "enclosure".
These people were born into a world, however impoverished, of community bonds and responsibilities that mutually reinforced individuals sense of security by embedding them, to use our sociological terms, in "support groups" with access to "resources": families and villages with access to land and water. These were communities that could pull together in times of famine, drought or political pestilence to survive. And did, and as recently as within the living memory of "The Great Leap Forward". While I am all for industrialization, the division of labor and economic efficiencies at the macro level, when a society embarks on re-organization from something like English Feudalism, France's Ancien Regime or PRC "Communism" into something like modern industrial capitalism, it is imposing on its population an existential dependency on money that will be entirely new to them and will always produce anxiety about money because suddenly life is impossible without it.
This political undertaking in post Medieval England was the subject of a great deal of attention by Marx and the brutality exhibited as part of the process in that particular place and time inspired most of his more radical political ideas. It's ironic now that it is nominally communist China callously inflicting this same regime on its population. Were the CCP really a Marxist entity it would certainly recognize what it is doing as familiar and provide its people with what means of production they needed to ensure their survival. That instead when "I told the officials who gave me permission to put up the wish trees about these anxieties... in their authoritarian, bureaucratic mind-set the reports were taken as early warnings of social tension rather than grievances to be redressed" indicates whatever its ideological pretenses the regime is a typical authoritarian one first and foremost, and consequently much more concerned with control than any interests of its minions.
“My daughter is far away in Guangdong. I am sick. I’ve had this lump for a long time. I think it’s cancer. I can’t afford to go to a doctor, and I haven’t told my daughter. I don’t want to ruin her life.” Deprived of both community and sustenance, even bonds of family are degraded as parents like this one calculate their costs to their children for their children's good and select death rather than resistance. People in such straights reach out for "spiritual" solutions because that is what they can afford when in a newly monetized economy they find themselves without money. A similar soulfulness has flourished in the post Reagan "neo liberal" United States as real incomes for the majority of citizens have gone into permanent decline. Spiritual communities cannot redress the absence of money, but by pooling resources into new organization can leverage their poverty into better communal conditions, but only to a point.
At the point of real scarcity, in the real absence of necessary resources in a money economy hard decisions about life and death are all that is left to both individuals and groups. “I’m a citizen at the bottom of society,” as one person wrote to heaven in the person of Lemos, “we would like to punish those who have taken away our land”. But they have neither the authority or resources so instead they pine and starve to free their children, they hope, to prosper in this perverse new world. Like the capitalist prototypes of the West, the Chinese version has at its dawn been overrun by corrupt opportunists who propagandize against their victims with wealth expropriated from those same suffering masses. It took a hundred years for the socialism that has made western economies viable these last sixty years to take its final shape in the aftermath of World War II. With its demographic heft and rapidly degrading environment, China has much less time to figure out that if people are dependent on the cash economy they must have adequate opportunities to acquire cash to survive. And even as China struggles to learn this lesson, we in the West are doing our best to forget it.