Rags to Riches

Thousands of people every year migrate from their rural homes in the country to find work in the big cities.Yet, 9 times out of 10, this procedure is not successful.

So why do they continue to do it?

This article will focus on China’s everlasting struggle with poverty and unemployment through the generations, and why nothing is being done about it.

A Harsh Reality

Today’s urban China is a melting pot of rich and poor. While successful businessmen go about their hectic lives of working, socialising and showing off, they turn a blind eye to the poverty that surrounds them. It is not often that these people take notice of the waiters, waitresses, chefs, shop assistents, factory workers and builders who are responsible for China’s wealthy citizens’ comfortable lifestyle. And it is sufficiently more unlikely for them to care about the conditions in which many of these people live and work. It is said that suicides in China count for 26% of suicides worldwide, and many of these suicides are within factories due to ridiculously long hours, hard labour, and extreme stress and pressure, with no end reward. Recently, Shenzhen’s Foxconn factory had to hang suicide nets due to a dozen people committing suicide in the factory.

And these people are the lucky ones. Some of Shanghai and the other big cities’ residents do not even have a fixed job: ‘urban life for them might mean sifting through rubbish for things to sell, or a fresh search for work – like the men who sometimes squatted on the pavement with little cardboard signs laid out in front of them advertising their services: ‘carpenter’, ‘plasterer’, ‘labourer’…’ *

In Hewitt’s ‘Getting Rich First: Life in a Changing China’, we are told about a man called Wei Yuan who works for a rich businessman called Mr Pan. After complaining that the people who usually wash his car (which was now Wei Yuan’s job) never do a good job, he states that he’s sure with Wei Yuan, this won’t be the case. “Its a new job for them, so they’ve got to work extra hard to protect their rice bowl” * His mocking tone is one employed by many others of the same social status with anything concerning their poor migrant employees. It is simply not one of their priorities to care about the lives of others less fortunate than them. Hense the term The ‘Me’ Generation.

The ‘Me’ Generation

This is term used to describe the generation of rich and successful young people living in Modern China, who are often portrayed as self absorbed and concerned more with the latest fashions than current affairs. “On their wish list, a Nintendo Wii comes way ahead of democracy.” **

“There’s nothing we can do about politics, so there’s no point in talking about it or getting involved.” ***

There is a vast divide between the ancient, tranquil China and the ever-increasing global power that it is gradually becoming. And between them? The twenty-something generation: a cross between the shallow, successful young business people of urban China and the struggling factory workers from the countryside. While the young adults of the ‘Me’ generation continue to ignore the issues with their suffering peers, nothing can be done to help them. “Contemporary Chinese society: the officially enshrined divide between urban and rural citizens.” *

The Migrant Generation

For years now, the young people of rural China have followed the somewhat mundane procedure of finishing school, and leaving their countryside homes to find work in the big cities like Shanghai or Hangzhou. As I said earlier, this is never usually successful. However, poverty is extremely prominent in rural China, and people have no choice. “My family are real peasants…I felt my burden was too much on them so I went to look for work” * 

Through the years, as the big cities have gotten bigger and imported foods have become easier to access, there has been less and less demand for produce from the farms in the coutntry . Therefore there is less work in the country, and more work (for however little pay) is available in the cities. Hense, the migrant generation. These people must find work in the cities to provide for their families, but as their search to find a living becomes more desperate, poverty becomes more prominent.

China’s ‘American Dream’

Its hard to express…It’s like wanting something that’s out of reach” *

Ultimately, the people of China, whether they are poor, rich, young or old, are in search of one common thing: the American Dream. It is this idealised concept that encourages the ‘me’ generation, and divides them from the older generation and the unfortunate migrant workers whom they live so close to. But it is not only the so called ‘me’ generation who are in search of this dream. The reason people migrate to the cities and work so hard for such little money, is because they strive for the same thing. And this, I believe, is the reason that poverty and unemployment in China cannot improve.

TT

* All quotes marked with (*) are from ‘Getting Rich First: Life in a Changing China’ – Duncan Hewitt, Vintage Books, 2008.

** Quote from Hong Huang, ‘ China’s Me Generation’ article by Simon Elegant, Time Magazine, 2007

***Quote from a young Chinese person,’ China’s Me Generation’ article by Simon Elegant, Time Magazine, 2007

A Fascination With Copying

For decades China has been renowned for it’s ability to copy and mass-produce foreign designs on a massive scale. It is this mass manufacturing that has been the driving force behind the country’s massive economic boom in recent years. However, as a new generation of young creatives begin to embrace today’s changing China and the new freedom that comes with it, will the phrase ‘made in China’ soon be evolving into ‘designed in China’?

China’s primary industry today is taking sample designs of gadgets, clothes, toys, etc. provided by western companies, reproducing them on a large scale in one of hundreds of thousands of factories, to then export back to the west to be sold. To be able to do this and do it well, meticulous attention to detail is key, and this is something the Chinese have certainly mastered. Team this with an abundance of workers willing to work long hours for little pay, and it’s no surprise so many companies, big and small, both high end and low end, choose to manufacture their products in China. No wonder it’s been labelled ‘the world’s factory’ seeing as only a tiny percentage of goods produced in China’s factories actually stay in China, the rest end up in shops all over the world.

However this Chinese fascination with copying foreign designs is no longer simply a means of successful mass production for foreign companies, it has become a part of everyday life in modern China. Whether it be American style homes and suburbs, British style villages or imitation and counterfeit goods, this obsession with copying has spread through all parts of Chinese consumer culture.

Counterfeit Capital of the World…

Chapter six of Karl Gerth’s As China Goes, So Goes the World, explains how consumers live in uncertainty due to the huge number of low quality counterfeit products on the Chinese market.

Brand owners in China estimate that 15 to 20 percent of all prominent branded goods in China are actually counterfeit…’

Sometimes there’s no way of telling what is real or what is fake until it’s too late, as victims of countless counterfeit scandals, such as the ‘big-head-baby’ formula scandal of 2004, have found out.

Shanzhai Culture…

Gerth also explains the concept of Shanzhai culture, when copies of popular western designs, most commonly mobile phones, are passed off not as fakes but as imitations, usually with similar sounding names, far lower prices and sometimes with more features to suit the Chinese market. These shanzhai products are not viewed as negatively as counterfeit products, they are sold openly and have ‘gained a level of social acceptance’. These ‘imitations’ are interesting, because although the appearance of the product has been copied, shanzhai manufacturers often add features, alter programs and change certain aspects of the design, therefore, in Gerth’s words, ‘blurring the line between imitating and originating.’

Thames Town…

30 km from central Shanghai, you will find Thames Town, a town made up of English style houses, streets, parks, shops and churches. Everyday soon to be married Chinese couples flock here to have their wedding photos taken against this bizarre backdrop of a perfect English market town.

Copy Artists…

I recently watched a documentary called Copy Artists, that explored the town of Dafen in Shenzen, a town famous for its oil painters. However the majority of the painters that live and work here are not creating works of their own, they are working in assembly lines, producing imitations of famous paintings to sell. Most of the people who work in these assembly lines are art students, working to pay their way through their studies, but others are struggling artists who have never been able to make a living selling their own work. Despite the high quality and amount of effort that goes in to each and every painting, workers earn very little, probably about as much as factory workers do in the city. People have argued that this process of copying classic pieces to sell is wrong, but the studio owners behind them argue that because they are not trying to sell their pieces as the original and are always open with the fact that it is merely an imitation, that it is perfectly ethical and not counterfeit.

A New Generation…

It is exciting to know that to counteract this copycat culture, an aspirational new generation of creative people with big ideas now have the freedom to express themselves and open the door to make way for a new way of design thinking in China. This generation are not content with copying foreign designs and are striving to push China in the direction of not only making, but also designing their own products. The documentary China Rises: City of Dreams, features Shanghai based fashion designer Jenny Ji. In an interview, Jenny sums up the attitude of this creative generation and their new found freedom…

‘I’m a designer from the new generation and I feel great. I don’t have the old restrictions and boring attitudes…

The old pessimism has gone, and I can embrace the new changes. I’m always dreaming of the choices available to me…’

Fuelled by a society that is bursting with confidence and originality, the future of China has the potential to be one of design and innovation rather than simple replicating and manufacturing, an exciting thought for any young designer like myself.

Something About Women

Humility, resignation, subservience, self-abasement, obedience, cleanliness, and industry.  Back in the day these were the qualities deemed appropriate for China’s little girls to aspire to.  The seven virtues that author Ban Zhao (a woman) urged China’s women to display in her book Admonitions for Women.    Women in feudal China were birthed and grown and shaped for men and men alone.  Confucian philosophy preached the highness of men and the lowness of women.  The overriding attitudes towards China’s women in the past were pretty clear.   They were mostly considered as property.  The women of China were there to obey their fathers, husbands and sons, no questions asked.

Image

A women’s role was firstly to keep the hubby happy and second to have babies.  Specifically little, bouncing boy babies, who, if their father ever died, would take on the task of making sure their mama was behaving herself.   In feudal China an arranged marriage was just the way society rolled and regardless of how miserable a women was her responsibility was to stay married.  No divorce.  No remarriage.

The idea of widow chastity really sunk it’s teeth into Chinese society and not only were women unable to remarry if their husband passed away, many actually took to committing suicide to ensure their purity and virtue was intact for the entirety of their lives.  “By the early Qing period (1644-1911), the cult of widow chastity had gained a remarkably strong hold, especially in the educated class. Childless widows might even commit suicide. Young women whose weddings had not yet taken place sometimes refused to enter into another engagement after their fiancé died. Instead, they would move to their fiancé’s home and serve his parents as a daughter-in-law.”  (Patricia Ebrey).

It seems fairly obvious that women were made for men.  When it was decided during the last Tang dynasty that itty bitty baby feet were beautiful women took to binding up their daughters feet in order to make them more desirable.  Long strips of cloth were used to restrict growth by wrapping them so tightly that the toes would curl under creating a much shorter, narrower and more arched appearance.Image

During the Ming and Qing dynasties women were actually not eligible for marriage unless they had bound feet and despite the obvious pain this would cause a young girl this practice was carried out for almost a thousand years.

Times would change however, and so did China’s feelings towards its young ladies.  During the mid 1900’s and with the establishment of the People’s Republic of China the life and prospects of young girls changed drastically.  Gone were the days of complete obedience and arranged marriages.  The early 1950’s introduced laws that radically altered the lives of China’s women.  They now had equal rights with men.  They were to receive equal pay and the same vocational opportunities as men.  They were not required to have an arranged marriage.  They were let loose and allowed to follow their dreams.

Today, although the women of China are still the main homemakers and do the bulk of the child rearing they are also at the forefront of the workforce.  China’s women are ambitious and are now encouraged to work their way to the top even if that means trampling over the men, that a hundred years ago they would have been serving.    “Today China has a greater percentage of women in its Parliament (21.3 percent) than the U.S. does in Congress.” (Newsweek Magazine, 2010).   The attitudes towards women that preached lowly subservience and resignation are seemingly a thing of the past and women are finally able to be recognized right alongside their male counterparts. Image

Changes to Chinas work force


 

There have been lots of changes in Chinas workforce throughout the years. Due to an increasing rate in suicides and people running away from their employers because they are being forced to work ridiculous hours and for an extremely low wage. This has forced employers to increase the workers wage and to be given added family/lifetime benefits. Young workers are less willing to work long hours for a dismal wage. They are realizing their worth and seeing a dramatic increase in goods being made in china and the demand for them.

China witnessed their first work related strike, where Honda saw 2000 workers walk off the production line in May last year. It was only when their bosses gave into their demand for a higher wage they agreed to go back to work. This inspired dozens of other factories across china to demand better pay for the hard work they do. Nowadays Chinese people are finding their voice and realizing their value to the companies they are working for.  However, even though workers are paid more, living costs are higher. So the salary is actually even lower than it was before, if you take the ever increasing living expenses into consideration. There were 90 thousand cases of labor conflicts in 1995 and over 800 thousand in 2009. The next generation will follow this trend and speak out for their interests and in years to come this may even influence Chinas political structure.

Employers in china are finding it increasingly hard to find workers, due to the fact that people have more choice now than they did 10 years ago. Job fairs are held throughout the year and have witnessed a drastic change. The jobs available far outnumber applications, only two years ago crowds scrambled to find any position they could but now people have the luxury of choice and employers are finding themselves competing with other companies to give workers the best benefits to entice them in.

Workers today will not put up with as much hardship as they did only 20 years ago. People differ from generation to generation. In the 1960’s people where used to enduring hardship known to the Chinese as “eating bitterness”, they worried about having adequate clothing and food but now people talk about the enjoyment of life and eating nice meals out. Before it was about it is about being prosperous and secure. The stream of people migrating to work is noticeably different; unlike before they are not just here to feed their families they are there to have their share of Chinas “economic miracle”. Workers are getting younger, getting a better education, and have bigger dreams than their predecessors. They do not want to spend their whole life in the same factory doing the same thing for 50 years.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BqGmCq0hUBk&feature=relmfu

 

In a documentary about “changing the face of the Chinese labor force” one of the managers of a factory stated “Workers are now spoilt their eagerness to learn and work hard is lower than those born in the 60’s”

I think this statement is wrong, it’s just that the younger generation is more interested in succeeding in life and being part of the new up incoming world, they have more ambitions and more opportunities than previous generations did and are using them to their advantage. Today’s new generation of laborers will be demanding more for their hard labor, knowing they are the driving force behind Chinas export economy.

All though it is looking quite positive for workers on the Chinese production lines for the future it is feared that some of these changes will put pressure on other parts of Chinas culture and will get worse as a consequence. How women have been treated in china has been questioned over the years. Women are under pressure from: men, their families, work and now an added pressure from themselves to prove to their families that they can work hard and earn their own money, taking control of their own lives. Over past generations women have been seen as belongings to their families or husbands, if someone wanted to know if a woman had a husband they would ask “do you have a Zui?”  Zui mean master this instantly suggests that once married they are owned, under the control of their husbands. But now women want to escape this lifestyle and the old traditions. However it is said because of this and the struggles companies will face in the next 20 years women will face a more terrifying future. There will be the threat of abduction, a significant increase in trafficking women / prostitution, and sexual violence towards women and young children will increase. The main reason for this prediction is due to women’s increasing want for more independence and freedom. This will eventually lead to an increase to the lengths people will go to stay in control, and try to keep up their traditions. Also due to workers across China unwilling to work for these low wages, it is predicted that children and women will be abducted and made to work long hours for little or no money. It is already being seen today and will only get worse as employers get more desperate.

 

 

Changing China throughout the 20th century

One of the best ways of understanding how modern China works is by looking to it’s past. China’s recent history is very interesting; it has experienced some of the fastest political, social, cultural and economic changes in modern history. This means that what part of the 20th century you were born in can have a big effect on the way you see the world. So what influenced these generations and what are some of the defining features and characteristics of them?

The oldest generation still living in China today (individuals born from about 1925 to the mid 1940s) will be able to remember China’s civil war and the 14 year long occupation of China by the ‘Empire of Japan’ which ended in 1945. They will also remember the formation of the new, communist, ‘People’s Republic of China’ in 1949 headed by chairman Mao. For people growing up in this period, it was time of conflict and uncertainty. Mao’s vision of a modern, industrialised, communist China resulted in private land, farms and more traditional ways of life being destroyed in favour of a large network of small-scale rural industries. This led to agricultural production plummeting and gave rise to mass food shortages across China. This meant that many of this generation got used to both gruelling manual labour and dire poverty being facts of life. Many of this generation held traditional Chinese Confucian values, which were instilled in them by their parents (who would still remember the fall of the Qing dynasty) but also learned that to get ahead, or sometimes even just to survive, you had to associate with the right people.

Mao at the ceremony of the founding of The People's Republic of China

The next generation (people born from the late 1940s to the early 1960s) were the generation of the Cultural Revolution in China. Living conditions were still very poor for most people and under Mao’s socialism any traditional or foreign influence on culture was supressed. Schools were eradicated, churches and temples were destroyed and many intellectuals were sent to labour camps or communes to be ‘re-educated’. Without education or any real prospects, the people of this generation (the teenagers) were one of the main forces behind ‘the cult of Mao’. Many grew up believing that unthinking loyalty toward the state would be rewarded, questioning this authority was completely unacceptable. They believed that education was unnecessary and that anything foreign or old fashioned was redundant. Following Mao’s death in 1976 ‘the cult of Mao’ began to disappear, leaving many of this generation confused, angry and uneducated. This generation is sometimes known as ‘the lost generation’ due to the fact they have little real education and therefore find it hard to cope in the modern China where jobs are won, not assigned.

Chairman Mao's death in 1976 marked a new era for China

The generation after the generation of the Cultural Revolution are often referred to as ‘generation X’ (roughly born between 1965 and the 1980). This generation grew up after Mao’s death when economic and social reforms were being implemented. China opened up to the world (to an extent); private ownership was legalised, education improved and literacy rates soared. By the early 80s living standards, life expectancies and overall food production were all on the rise. This generation also experienced greater personal freedoms and both an influx of foreign culture and a revival of traditional Chinese culture. Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism all experienced revivals. The government set up SEZs (special economic zones) where foreign investment was allowed and this began China’s unprecedented economic growth. With the abundance of cheap labour China started becoming one of the worlds manufacturing hubs. This also meant that many of this generation moved from rural areas into the large cities to get a job and save money. The majority would then return to their rural lives to settle down and have children. Although there were vast improvements poverty was still pretty widespread, especially in rural areas. And despite China’s social and economic progress, it was still a totalitarian regime without any real political freedom for it citizens and 1989 it was internationally condemned for it’s brutal crackdown of protestors in Tiananmen Square.

Famous image from the Tiananmem Square protests in 1989

The current generation (born between 1980 and the late 1990s) are sometimes known within China as ‘little emperors’. This generation are a result of China’s attempt to control population growth, a one-child policy was introduced in 1979 and as a result this generation are often brought up as the sole focus of two parents and four loving grandparents. They tend to have higher self-esteem and expect more from life but also understand that they will have to work hard to achieve this. This makes them ideally placed to continue China’s economic rise. China has also expanded it’s SEZs and throughout the 90s and 00s millions of young people moved from rural China to the major cities in search of work. Although now, according some surveys, as little as 4% migrate with the intention of returning home to settle down. Throughout this period China has also become much more open and less repressive – no longer a totalitarian state. Private property protection rights; legislation on working conditions and foreign investment on a much bigger scale have all been introduced. The government has even tried to even out some of the disadvantages of economic growth, such as the regional unemployment, pollution and distribution of wealth between urban and rural areas. These policies have now cemented China’s place as a world economic power. Due to this and the fact that China is now investing heavily in the sciences, technology and space exploration (not to mention the successful hosting of the 2008 Olympics), this generation is experiencing a swell of national pride – China is becoming a great power once again.

The iconic Bird's Nest stadium built for the 2008 Beijing Olympics

Although it is hard to define the ideas, beliefs and influences on any generation without making generalisations, especially in a country as large as China – I hope that this article highlights the extreme and rapid changes that have taken place in China over the past 60 years.