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.”

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