It didn’t take long to discover the powerlessness of the puny individual in the face of this country’s economic juggernaut.
The night my wife and I arrived from New York to take possession of our Beijing pied-à-terre, we discovered that just across a narrow courtyard from our new place, another apartment building was being built—24 hours a day, seven days a week. The hammering, roaring and grinding noises kept us from sleeping, and we vowed to complain the next morning to somebody—maybe to the police—about the violation of our right to have some quiet at, say, 3am.
But when we spoke the next morning to our building management, we were told that it was the Chinese government itself, eager for construction to be completed in time for the Olympic Games next year, that was putting pressure on builders to work through the night. Complaining to the police would do no good, our neighbours told us. Just close your windows, turn on your air-conditioner and get used to it.
Quite a few aspects of the Chinese situation are on display in this little story, not least that the Chinese determination to turn its capital into an Olympic Games showcase is an overriding priority, and no dainty worry about noise pollution, or any other pollution, is going to stop it.
But for someone whose China baseline is the early 1980s, when I was the Time magazine correspondent in Beijing, more is on display. For one, there’s the mere fact that we own an apartment here. In 1980, China was in the waning moments of its Maoist experiment and foreigners were isolated in special, walled and guarded compounds or hotels. The idea of owning an apartment and living amid Chinese people seemed almost outlandish, though to foreigners who have been living here more recently, my astonishment must make me seem like Rip Van Winkle.
Then there’s the fact that our apartment, which we bought a few months ago and are living in for the summer, is a modern, luxurious place that has air conditioning to turn on. About half the people who have bought in our immense compound, consisting of 10 or so 20-storeyed buildings interspersed with pleasant gardens and fountains, are local people, who have paid anything from about $150,000 (Rs61.5 lakh) for a small apartment (such as ours) to more than $1 million for a larger one.
In the China of two decades ago, nobody, not even Western ambassadors and Communist Party leaders, lived in Western-style comfort. Now an ever-growing segment of the urban population does.
My Insiders’ Guide to Beijing says that 1,000 new cars are bought in the capital every day, a sign of higher living standards as well as a reason for the monumental traffic jams and equally impressive pollution in the city. Still, most Chinese have not achieved Western or Japanese living standards, and in this respect I was interested in the workers in their yellow and red hard hats who were building the building across the courtyard from us.
They are a few dozen among the hundred million or more migrant workers, what the Chinese sometimes call farmers-turned-workers, who are in the cities, supposedly temporarily, to satisfy the need for labour in the vast construction going on in cities all over this country. What they show in part is that the vast reserves of cheap labour in China are responsible for more than its export-industry boom. Subsistence-level wages are also a key element in the ambitious plan to turn Beijing into an urban showcase in time for the Olympics next year.
The lowest paid among the construction workers, one of them told me, gets about $150 a month, plus a dormitory bed, three meals a day and accident insurance. In exchange for that, they work nine or 10 hours a day, seven days a week. “We have no weekends,” the man joked. He said he was from Hubei province, south of Beijing, and managed to send just about all of his salary home to his family. A monthly salary of $150 is not exactly munificent, though it is more than workers in toy or clothing factories in China make.
So, in one respect, the migrant workers illustrate what is acknowledged as an important problem in this country—the ever-widening gap between the rural poor and the urban rich.
Men like my friend from Hubei will never be able to live in one of the apartments he is helping to build. He will not eat in restaurants he walks by on his time-off strolls, because even a simple bowl of noodles will cost him an hour or two of salary. He will not send his children to the good schools of the capital because the city government, trying to ensure that they will leave when their jobs are finished, will not allow him to.
In a gesture apparently growing out of concern for this disparity, the Beijing city government recently banned billboard advertising for luxury apartments. No more of those huge depictions of appliance-rich, marbled residential compounds complete with nursery schools, underground parking garages and health clubs that seemed to rub the migrant workers noses in their conspicuously less advantaged state.
Still, the low wages of the migrant workers illustrate something else: that if China learned nothing else from its Maoist experiment, it learned that requiring everybody to be more or less the same economically no matter what their work, kept everybody poor.
And that, fundamentally, is why things are the way they are in China now, because Chinese leaders, no doubt fully aware of the utopian ideals of Communism, believe that there is no other way.
And probably nobody is going to change their minds, not the underpaid workers and not the new middle class, evenif they are kept up at night by the noise being made by the workers outside. INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE