Jonathan Holslag On world order and disorder

Living on the fringes of China’s capital

Sunday Morning: we are ploughing trough heavy Beijing traffic to Picun, one of the towns outside the centre. Leaving fourth ring road behind us, it suddenly becomes dramatically clear how urbanization is eating into the remaining fallow land between the current capital and the airport. Schools and apartments are mushrooming everywhere. Three-lane roads are paved to channel the coming outburst of industriousness and construction. In the middle of all this sits Picun, a dusty settlement that amasses about 10,000 souls around small basic firms that supply the capital with everything ranging from furniture, cages for air conditioners, to construction materials. Picun is a migrant settlement. The farmers that originally lived here have left their land years ago, now renting it out to fortune seekers from all different parts of China.

Its towns like Picun that allows the capital to enjoy its dazzling splendour. If Beijing residents on average earn 75,000 yuan, labourers in this manufacturing town have to settle for 12,000 to 30,000 yuan a year. The main explanation for this gap is still the hukou system that makes the people living in the Picun the playball of China’s crude capitalism. They are in administrative no-man’s land. Officially registered in rural areas, few people consider returning. Especially the second generation of migrant workers has not only tied its fortunes to the life oDSC_0682small1n the uncertain fringes of Beijing, they also feel very much part of the city’s progress, and entitled to be lifted from rural backwardness.

Sadly, these great expectations increasingly collide with reality. While wages have gone up a bit, the daily journey from penury into exuberance and back, cannot but create tensions, tensions that are exacerbated by the lack of social rights and basic labour conditions. “Imagine, there are 150 million migrant workers in China and we only have two representatives in the national people’s congress,” Mr. Liu remarks, “This system is inherently flawed. Many people cannot stand it any more, the corruption. The Communist Party promises to reform the unfair hukou scheme, but that will take another 10-15 years, because the interests within the Party are too much divided.” Liu vests his hope in China’s new left. Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai and Guangdong boss Wang Yang are for him the leaders that will make a difference. Curiously he refers to the reign of Bismarck as an example: a strong government, but with progress towards rudimentary welfare for all.

Mr. Liu is heading up a small museum for migrant workers, displaying work permits from different decades and lots of pictures of the crude working conditions of migrant workers: miners with gaping wounds, fingers cut off in factory accidents, and desperate labourers taking their lives by jumping from chimneys and cranes. “This is not just about wages,” Liu asserts, “Wages were always a problem. In a lot of cases, it is about mental distress. People are not treated as humans. They live in these large factories 7 days on 7, doing the same movement time after time after time. At the same time, those people cannot see a brighter future.” While there is no such thing as class-consciousness, large-scale unrest cannot be excluded. The first generation was tolerant. The younger generations are different. In spite of the lack of organization they are a volatile mass.

Initiatives to soothe the hardship of migrant workers are few and the government is not really lending a helping hand. Take schools for their children. The vast majority leaves their siblings in their home villages, a situation that generates a torrent of stories about toddlers almost independently looking after their brother or sister. Adult endure the toil mostly to give them a brighter future at a university, but the parentless life undoubtedly demands its toll. The few children that are in this town are fortunate to have a school, sponsored by Oxfam and the Red Cross. The state is not involved at all. Local politicians are afraid that including children of migrant workers into their system is just going to be too costly. New measures to provide in free education are rarely having a result. Nor is China’s new socialism keen on labour unions, I am explained. “Civil society is not attractive to workers because they are not allowed to take over the role of tDSC_0717small3he official labour organization, the ACFTU, which in most occasion is just a bunch of allies of factory bosses.”

Dung and trash are found rotting in all corners of this shantytown. Families live packed onto a few square metres. Dogs seem to live a more carefree life than of its other residents. Ramshackle shelters are lined up along an open sewage channel. Peering into the darkish caves of steel and corrugated iron, one discerns shadows bending over wooden constructions, dragging bags, and welding bars. Mr. Ding is one of the migrants that managed to set up a company that produces small iron constructions. Employing a handful of other migrant workers, Mr. Ding is doing reasonable business. His dream is to specialize in gates for luxury compounds, but that requires more capital, which he cannot get. “Doing business in China requires a lot of stamps,” he explains, showing a sort of manual with all the documents and licences needed, “If you are a resident company, you can get away with it, but not us. We can only supply to local companies, which makes that our profits are very thin, that we cannot develop direct linkages to customers, and that we are forced to compete relentlessly with other low-end suppliers.” On top of that, companies of migrants can be demolished at any time by local governments, to make place for large enterprises that generate more taxes.

People like Mr. Ding are the entrepreneurs that make China. Cheaper as they produce, you can probably not find. They allow the ever-expanding urban populaces to truly enjoy their wealth and the large companies to squeeze the cost of supplies. Everyone wants to become a Beijinger, but only few of the transients living in Picun will ever make it. “Large cities all want to benefit from labour migrants, but they do not want to count these compatriots amongst themselves”, says Emily Preston, a researcher investigating the life of second-generation migrants. Perhaps that reflects the very dilemma of China. Its splendour beckons to all, but as only few will ever taste it, a growing number of citizens will get disillusioned.