Thursday, 26 June 2014


“Wow, Shanghai is beautiful!” I exclaimed to my co-worker, Alex, as I stood bathed in the buzzing metropolis skylines. The lights. The energy. I was giddy with excitement.

“Yes it is,” he smiled. “But it’s getting too crowded. Too many people; It's the people who are ruining this city.”

As I probed his statement further I discovered Alex had one eight-year old daughter, he family owned a toy manufacturing company and like many born and bred Shanghainese he was not particularly fond of the city’s migrants from neighboring towns or villages or ‘peasants.’

Measures such as the hukou (household registration) system are put in place to control this influx of migrants from other cities.  Essentially a social management system that ties benefits like health care and pensions to a person’s place of birth, it even requires students to take the college entrance exam in the place where their parents are registered. And very few migrant workers can move their hukous to the cities where they work.

So some 260 million Chinese migrants — about 20 percent of China’s total population — live as second-class citizens in their adopted cities. In them, but not belonging to them.

This has caused many controversial and complex ethnic issues within China, especially in first tier cities like Shanghai, where its citizens have since the 1930s was known as a mixed blood metropolis that upended every notion of East meets West. In this strange way, the window the Shanghainese want to portray to the West is also a window into a China that many other Chinese are unwilling to imagine.

Contributed by the fact that most people feel that too little of the country's spectacular growth is trickling down to them, it has created a wall between Shanghai and the rest of China.

“Our public transportation is crowded with migrants,” Alex continued. “Our hospitals are overburdened. We don't have the resources designed for a city of 10 million — not the 23 million or more we have now.”

It can be hard to comprehend the notion of racism towards one’s own people but you must first come to understand the fundamental changes in people’s lives here over the past 20 years or so.

China has had a hukou system for at least a couple thousand years, mostly, to keep track of who was in what family. But it was only under Communist Party rule, starting in the late 1950s, that the hukou system started to be used to restrict movement and enforce a kind of economic apartheid.

The change came because the Party wanted to speed the process of industrializing and modernizing China. The idea was that if farmers could be kept on the farms, producing food for factory workers in cities, the urban workers could be paid little, but compensated with an ‘iron rice bowl’ of benefits — free education, health care, subsidized food and pensions.

However due to rising labour costs, risks of instability Shanghai has come to realize that its consumer base will continue to shrink if at least some of its migrants are allowed to stay, work and spend.

So Shanghai has started dividing migrant workers into classes. The ones who are the most educated or talented – Class A — get the Shanghai hukou. The slightly less talented – Class B — might get a hukou after seven years of paying into the social security system. And the worst off who clean the apartments and sweep the streets? They’ll just have to wait longer.

It’s easy to dismiss the notion as relic of an era of Communist China that probably doesn’t fit the modern times.

To explain this we must remember the almost religious devotion people had to Chairman Mao over the course of a generation which all of a sudden disappeared overnight. But for the average person, the effect was transformative. All of a sudden people were told to go off on their own, find work for themselves and build lives with the little bit of money that they were accumulating. Like a bird or prisoner held for so long in captivity, they had been released from the system and were sent out on their own.

“There was no religion after that – money became religion,” he chuckles. “The Mao administration made many mistakes in values that still unfortunately live on today.”

“The current government will have a lot of socio-economic issues to deal with: Land grabs by local officials, unrestrained industrialization, growing corruption.”

And angry people can talk to each other, as they never could before, through the Internet. Or can they?

 “What’s worse is that after all these reforms, modernizations and urbanization, everyone in China cannot or worse, doesn’t want to voice out their opinions and frustrations.”

In this way China is a country of many paradoxes; a country that's transformed radically economically and incredible growth of new businesses and prosperity, It is still, at its heart, an authoritarian state.

Home to some of the world’s largest tech companies in the world, like Tencent and Alibaba, all of its media is censored and controlled by the government.

While the government encourages innovation and entrepreneurship through the ‘China Dream’ campaign and mobility with reforms to the hukou system, it still attempts to suppress speech and assembly.

“Living here you simply don’t know what to believe any more. What lie is more believable than the next lie.”

One would assume increasingly educated and affluent people travelling overseas would take note on other comrades and speak up. “Yet Chinese people have always valued stability over freedoms and rights,” he reminds me. “After all, if my family and myself have clothes on our backs and food on the table, why should we complain?” as he tries to explain their attitude.

Paradoxically again, today, even though their children are free of hunger and starvation, they face new dangers: they search for the latest air filters and pollution masks to reduce the effects of the environment; they shop for organic food to cut down on the risk of adulterated ingredients; and they evaluate new cars based on supposed safety ratings.

Of course, those who are ‘privileged’ enough to have the option.

So what is Alex’s China Dream, I ask?

“I want to migrate outside of China – show my daughter Europe, show her the world. I am afraid as she grows older, she will have questions I cannot answer. Because I don’t even know the truth any more.”

“So funny,” he laughs. “All you foreigners keep wanting to come to China. And all the Chinese want to move outside.”

“As soon as I get the opportunity I will. But until then you could say, I am just as immobile as the migrant workers.”


Once I became aware of the growing importance of Mandarin Chinese (or Putonghua) and China’s positioning in the world, I flew to Shanghai beginning of this year to spend half a year studying it. I had made multiple trips to the city in the past and with the blessing of the company I was working with I had the opportunity to study and work from our offices there.

The historic French Concession. The gleaming lights. The beautiful elegance of the streets I had so fell in love with.  I couldn't wait.

However, as I soon found out, the advertorials and my brief weekend trip’s camera roll failed to convey how much in actuality it can feel much closer to the spirit and geography of the windswept plains of inner Mongolia than to the neon lights of Hong Kong.

In the claptrap taxi ride from the airport to the company flat where I was staying, with the windows sealed and the heat cranked up, the stench of tobacco and pretense stuck to the roof of my mouth. Shanghai’s weather is notoriously of two extremes. With temperatures often reaching to 40 degrees in the summer, in the winter, the merciless wind that rose high in the North China plains whistled down and lashed your face.

The flat was located in the Pudong area, a futuristic vision that from what I remembered overlooking across the river sparkled as the city’s new financial district on what were marshland and rice paddy fields some 15 years ago.

The taxi driver finally pulled up outside a noodle stand shop and opposite a crumbling brick row block of flats, which looked like small boats in a sea of rubble. My doe eyes soon became filled with disbelief.

“Are we here?” I asked, secretly wishing he had made a wrong turn or lost his way.

I crossed the road with my luggage in tow, and after a couple serendipitous misses from a passing by motor scooter, I walked slowly past the flat entrance, double-checking the address I had was correct. Residents and some onlookers must have picked up on my desperateness or my foreignness staring at me with their intense eyes. Now looking back it could have been both.

A flight of crumbling stairs and poorly lit hall after, the countryside felt nearer than the affluent commercial district, only a few streets north.

That evening, desperate for some contact and sense of familiarity I set out to look for a café or anywhere with public Wi-Fi. Only to discover few miles down the street was a series of high-rise buildings, a subway station and a Starbucks. Even the Intercontinental hotel was nearby. 

I had never looked more forward to an Americano before. The barista greeted me cheerfully and in English too. She then prompted to ask me where I was from.

“Wow,” she said. “You’re far away from home.”

Indeed I was.


“So how’s living in China?” my friends from back home in Europe often ask me. And with every question I always find myself reeling with a simple, let alone accurate answer.

Words like “crazy,” “insane” or “different” always seemed to come to mind as I tried my best to tactfully muster.

It comes naturally from a sense of humility, I hope. That’s the sense anyone who spends time in China quickly realizes. The truth is you can only hope to get an understanding of a very limited part; your view of China is consequently determined by who you are, and mostly where you happen to be focused at that given moment.
I decided early on that the only honest way I could write about this country was by setting aside these generalizations, about how ‘crazy’ or ‘insane’ China is, how ‘different’ Chinese people are from ‘us’ or what Chinese people are experiencing.
My mother who is of Chinese descent – it is an inherent ethnical subconscious decision. For years having lived and raised in the Western world from a mixed cultural background, where the Westerner’s often-privileged guide to talking about the ‘rest of the world,’ includes all-purpose labels like ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’ as an unquestionable given to bring comfort and order to an otherwise overwhelming world. 

And then it’s a career-led decision, because on some level, I do believe that China – whether in politics, in economics or in society – has become increasingly important in a way that it has never been in the past. So if we want to understand the country, we first have to understand what it means to be a Chinese individual. 
I often find myself wishing for shutter shot camera-like eyes to effectively capture my surroundings and happenings here before they slip away.
Until technology catches up to this fantastical dream, I will instead try to write about the individual moments and encounters, and try to dignify them with the meaning they deserve.
Living in China at this moment, the stories bombard you with such fantastical vividness that you can’t help but write them down and hope to make sense of them later.

So if I had to how would I sum up living in China?

“You need to come here for yourself and see.”