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HarshrealityofChina’sdivide

(2019-02-16 20:10:22)
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By JOE ZHANG, MAY 3, 2001.

 The New York Times. IHT.

On a recent trip here from Hong Kong, I visited my 22-year-old nephew Donghai. Three months earlier, he had cried as he said farewell to his parents and sister in Maliang, a remote village in Hubei Province in central China. Donghai came to Beijing to work for a consultancy firm owned by a friend of mine. But a couple of weeks ago he lost his job after the consultancy was bought by a larger company.

Donghai shares a tiny room with Hong, a mature-age student at the Beijing University of Foreign Trade. It is one of about 40 such rooms in the basement of the university's warehouse. The corridor is dimly lit and lined with cardboard boxes and plastic bags. It reminds me of my own dormitory when I was a college student in Wuhan from 1979 to 1983.

Donghai told me that about 70 people live in the basement, which has two levels. When it rains heavily, dirty water flows into the corridor. Most of the residents are migrant workers from various parts of China, the so-called "floating population."

The millions of migrant workers are badly treated by locals, although they do the heaviest and dirtiest work. As they do not have permanent city residency status, they are often the first to lose their jobs. To make matters worse, city residents and government officials often make them convenient scapegoats for theft and petty crimes. Even newspapers refer to them as a group of troublemakers.

For their tiny room, Donghai and Hong each have to pay a monthly rent of 250 yuan, about $30. Before he lost his job, which paid about 500 yuan a month, Donghai found the rental manageable. But he recently started a self-imposed austerity program. Donghai said he tries to live on 5 yuan a day. I felt really sorry for him and gave him 4,000 yuan.

As a high school student in 1977 and 1978, I seldom had enough food. I had to live at the school because it was 10 kilometers from my home and there was no transport. Many of my fellow students suffered eyesight impairment and other medical complaints because of poor nutrition and inadequate lighting. I certainly do not want Donghai to endure the same pain.

Besides, I have a moral obligation to look after Donghai. His mother, my sister Yuqing, quit school in 1972 at the age of 13 to look after me and two younger siblings for a year when our parents were "mobilized" by the People's Commune to build a reservoir for Jingmen city, 60 kilometers from our home.

Yuqing, who was not able to finish her own education, has pinned high hopes on her children, Donghai and her 15-year old daughter, Dongqin. Yuqing wants them to become permanent city residents and get respectable white-collar jobs.

Since 1949, China has divided its citizens into two classes: urbanites and peasants. Residence controls have been extremely rigid, causing much hardship. Countless families have been divided because of the controls. Employment is often linked to having the right residence status. The right to live and work in one city is not automatically transferable to another city. When I was a small child in my rural village, I started to understand that I was among second-class citizens. Since then, I have heard and seen much about the unfairness between the two classes.

Since the late 1970s, millions of people, myself included, have won the privilege of urban resident status. Having a university education and doing military service are the most common legal ways. But many city governments have openly sold residence rights for hefty fees. While the fee varies between cities, it can reach 30,000 yuan per person.

What has changed in recent years is that city residence no longer goes with a guaranteed job. Many rural families, after spending their life savings and even borrowed money to move to cities, end up without jobs. In fierce labor market competition, these new urbanites are often disadvantaged because they do not have necessary contacts, skills or exposure. They are not even

qualified for social security payments, which are tied to prior employment in the state sector.

Donghai was out of work for almost two years after graduating from a local technical college. Imagine how pleased Yuqing was when I arranged for Donghai to work for my friend's firm, although Donghai still does not have permanent resident status in any city, not to mention Beijing.

To avoid upsetting his parents, Donghai hasn't told them that he has lost his job. Meanwhile, he is trying hard to find other work in Beijing. I feel for Donghai. He will lose face for the family and himself if he has to return home.

I admire Donghai because he remains determined to succeed in the city. He has just registered for a Securities Institute qualification exam to be held in June. In the meantime, he continues to visit employment centers and comb the classified ads for jobs.

The writer, a financial analyst in Hong Kong and a former manager at China's central bank in Beijing, contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune (part of the New York Times).

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