View from the Wall

Everyone is Not Local


Having been away for some years, I tried to settle down again in Beijing. I took with me my Malaysian-born wife, who speaks Chinese with a different accent, and tried to make her feel at home. When she got her first job in a small private company, I addressed her concern over communication with "local" people by saying: "Don't worry about people not understanding your Chinese. They can't understand each other either. Here, everyone is not local." I said this because I almost always find seven out of ten people on the street speaking with a dialect different from that of Beijing's. The official Chinese labeling of migrants in Beijing was "peasant workers," but now it is "people coming to Beijing for jobs." This changing of labels reflects the true situation. Anyone can come. Everyone wants to come. All believe that this is the land of opportunity, a place worth their desperate attempt for money or their desire for adventure.

The Truly Free Labor Market

The word "free" means no restrictions; when you finish farm work, have the luxury of time, and believe in the financial myth of leaving your hometown, with an affordable train ticket, you can just come. At a walking distance from the Beijing railway station there is a road junction where you can unload your luggage and stop for a while, not to have a rest but for job hunting! There are about fifty people like you around. A subcontractor from the construction sector, or a "broker" from the service sector will walk over. You have a short conversation, mainly about the monthly pay rate and other "benefits" like room and board. Feel OK? You go with him. There are two possible directions.

Construction sector: Here you are directed to a "dorm" in a suburban area where buses are available to get to the construction site. You are given a uniform and a helmet. You are fed with rice and steamed bread and a dish cooked right on site. You sit on the sidewalk during lunch break or linger in a shopping mall if you are lucky enough to have one nearby. After work, you will cram back into the bus. A shower before you go to bed? Usually not. That is why you are smelly the next morning. The stain on your uniform will remain. After all, why bother when it will get dirty again anyway. Month end salary payment? Sorry, year end please. You don't really need money now, do you?

Service sector: The worst job in this sector could be issuing leaflets to passers-by or attaching flyers to the poles along the sides of the street. You may play hide-n-seek with a special task force from the municipal government intended to deal with illegal advertisements. The better choices are to be a waiter, waitress or assistant in the kitchen of a restaurant, assistant in a barber's shop, or a street cleaner in uniform. Beyond that, how about a security guard? You have to be male but do not have to be strong or with a military background. At the next higher level, you could be a salesperson for a real estate or automobile agent. These better choices may guarantee you a steady source of monthly income to cover your rent. Yes, you rent a room with friends or colleagues of the same background.

If you are reasonably presentable, you may work for one of the top banks in the countrybut not on their official payroll. You are paid via a labor force agency. If you are well educated, having a master's degree, sooner or later you will be encouraged by family or friends to take the adventure of your life, to apply for a really good job, where you can be paid decently and enjoy full benefits like social security, unemployment insurance, health insurance, housing provision and a pension plan. The younger, service-oriented, better educated migrants are rapidly becoming the new Beijingers.

Is there any chance for workers in the construction sector to enjoy any of the benefits above? Not likely. Corners are cut wherever possible. After all, if you are "unemployed" you can go back to your hometown; you would never dream of having your own home here on your monthly income.

Nevertheless, in a free market like this, migrants are willing to weigh the risks against the rewards—a day's wage here is higher than a week's back home, a week's wage is higher than a month's. Money aside, their need for family life cannot be satisfied immediately. Construction workers who are married have to leave their wives and children at home. Those in the service sector, who are usually younger and better paid, will consider bringing their families with them to Beijing. Then come the problems of having children here, bringing them up and their schooling. The list goes on.

Migrants are both creating demand while supplying demand that comes from both Beijingers and themselves. This is a snowball, making Beijing "a land full of gold," where "nothing is impossible." Thus, we see the birth and growth of another megacity with breathtaking speed and mind-boggling dimensions. Optimism is the major theme of the day

Beijinger's Ambivalence

Walking down the street, riding the bus, taking the subway, I hear many different ways of speaking Chinese, some of which sound nothing like Mandarin. There is a sensation of being overwhelmed which could also be due to the volume of those speaking, and the fact that they speak all the timeand talk about every detail of their work and lives. The physical closeness is even more unbearable, not only because I have gotten used to more personal space elsewhere, but because of the body odor.

We do not like to have so many of them around, yet we have become dependent on themand cannot live without them. Without them, the wholesale market for food and clothing would run out of business leaving us at the mercy of Carrefour, Wal-Mart, Tesco or something similar. During the Olympics, we tasted a bit of life without some of the migrants—the street food vendors. How could I forget to include them in the service sector? Well, not only were they forced to leave, but also the interior decorator of my modest house, someone from a farm in Henan Province, had to leave. He was not allowed to come back until the end of September after the Paralympics closed. The same fate befell even the builders of the Bird's Nest! Yet, without migrants' talents to build, renovate and decorate, Beijingers would not enjoy new houses, new roads, new Olympic Greensnew everything. Beijingers are spoiled by endless fashion updates at an unreasonably cheap cost. Without the migrants in the coastal, manufacturing cities, and the migrants here to bring in the goods, our obsession for something new cannot develop very extensively.

A Brighter Future for All

Who are the Beijingers? The answer is pretty simple: those whose ID number begins with "11." I have kept this obvious secret to the end, feeling reluctant to talk about hukou—the household registration system. The basic rule is that a new-born baby will follow the registration status of the mother. If the mother has her registration record in a police office in Beijing, so will the baby. The migrant construction workers, all of whom are male, will not have their babies registered as Beijingers unless they marry a female registered in Beijing. Without the registered status of a Beijinger, a new-born baby will not enjoy the same benefitsespecially in terms of schooling.

So, this hukou system effectively segregates urban dwellers from peasants when the former, who have benefits and privileges, are fed and provided for by the latter, who have few benefits and no privileges. This will not work any more when migrants have permeated every part of city life. Already the government is urging schools to grant equal access to newborn babies from migrants, no matter what kind of registration status they have. The same government running the hukou is now proposing "basic medical service for all." "All" includes those having registration status and migrants living in Beijing for more than six months. It is a step in the right direction, at least. The ideal of "one world, one dream" should, at least, start with "one country, one status." That will make a bright future for all.

Image credit: Beijing Migrant Worker by Aaron Kyle, on Flickr

Jonathan Li

Jonathan Li is a university professor in Beijing. View Full Bio