This article is part of a series called ‘Notes On China’. Its aim is to provide an analysis of events and ideas related to domestic politics, economy, and foreign policy of China.
I met Sheng ayi (auntie in Mandarin) during my graduate studies in Shanghai. Ayi is a janitor and cleans toilets in our academic block and keeps the university corridors sparkling clean, every day. Eager to experience a new culture but lacking the tools of language, making Chinese friends, navigating Shanghai’s megapolis and buying daily necessities were difficult and often frustrating tasks. I slowly started interacting and picking up new words in Mandarin with the help of our dormitory assistant, the library shu-shu (uncle in Mandarin) and Sheng ayi. Over time, ayi and I developed a close friendship and one wintry evening she invited me to her home for dinner.
A Shanghai hidden amidst modern skyscrapers
Ayi’s house was located behind the south gate, one of the four gates of our sprawling university campus. At first glance, the building resembled a typical middle-class apartment with walls drained of paint, loose cables hanging from the ceiling and lots of electric scooters and bicycles parked around the cramped space.
As I made my way through the narrow corridor leading to ayi’s house, however, I faced a sudden moment of discordance with reality. Just outside was the big, classy and rich Shanghai that transformed into a poor, worn-out apartment complex where I stood. The narrow alleyway snaked across and on both sides were yet more cycles and bikes, unused washing machines, broken wooden cupboards and rubbish strewn everywhere. The Shanghai that I knew until now seemed to fade away further into oblivion as I entered ayi’s house.
What was home for her was essentially a cardboard cut-out box of a structure, small and closed, barely enough for one person to survive. A one-room house, it ended where it began. Ayi lived with her husband, who works as a painter for building constructions around Shanghai. With clothes, plastic sheets, bags lying on what seemed to be bunk beds without any bedding, I wondered where ayi and her husband took rest after a hard day’s labour or slept at night. An old television set, a noisy air conditioner and a small refrigerator lay on either corner of the square-shaped room. An open-air kitchen, located outside the house, consisted of a rice cooker, a few pans, a bottle of oil and a butler’s knife. Each house had a table-cum-kitchen outside their doors, differentiated only by the cooking oil they used. It was -3 Celsius outside, but my ayi with her sweet smile had already started preparing for our meal.
Ayi asked me to wash the veggies at the wash basin attached to the common toilet and bathroom. Leaking pipes, broken doors held by a cloth hook and the stench of urine filled my nostrils and I quickly ran to the open-air kitchen. Ayi’s neighbour, Shen, was preparing rice on his side of the “kitchen” and we started talking about his hometown in Anhui province, his family left behind in the village, and about Shen’s job here as a security guard at our university.
In the meantime, ayi whipped up one dish after another and soon dinner was ready. Soup with egg and mushrooms, tofu with capsicum, tofu with lettuce and my favourite sliced potato called ‘tudousi’ (potato). Ayi settled for fish soup. She made space for us to sit among the mountain of clothes. We spoke about her life back home and watched Chinese shows on TV. She spoke about her son who works in Guangzhou province and her constant worry about his marriage, a similar concern voiced by Indian mothers. Ayi grew nostalgic as she spoke about her home in Jiangsu province, her old parents and elder brother toiling away in the paddy fields. Shortage of money means she is able to visit home, just one hour by high-speed rail from Shanghai, only once a year, mostly around the Chinese New Year holidays.
Shanghai’s (unequal) rise: migrants left behind
Shanghai’s allure as a global financial hub and a showstopper in China’s growth story has pulled people from all corners within the country and beyond to try their luck in the large city. By the end of 2014, Shanghai saw the total resident population swell to 24,152,700, with the migrant population growing from 3 million in 2000, representing 18.3 per cent, to 9 million in 2011, representing 39 per cent of the city’s population. These migrant workers have flocked to the city from the nearby provinces of Anhui, Jiangsu, Sichuan and Henan, seeking better economic opportunities, making up the largest percentage of the city’s growth in the past few years. However, Shanghai’s rise has not seen commensurate improvement in the living standards of the migrant population who are often forced to live in the poorest conditions.
Migrant labourers often work in labour, construction, factories as well as the service sector. Their wages tend to be lower than those of Shanghai residents and their living conditions extremely poor. People like ayi and her husband, who came to Shanghai during its boom phase, have been relegated to living lives bordering on poverty. With no job security, inhumane living conditions and low pay, migrants are either forced to continue working under such harsh constraints for survival or leave the city in search of better opportunities.
Adding to their woes is the discriminatory hukou or household registration system, which designates a resident’s status as being either rural or urban based on their registered birthplace. In practice, this means that ayi and her husband are not entitled to public services like subsidised housing, access to basic health care and unemployment benefits in Shanghai despite working and living in the city because they possess the Jiangsu hukou and not the Shanghai one. Shen, the security guard, cannot not live together with his wife and daughter in Shanghai because migrant children are not entitled to attend local schools without the Shanghai hukou. What began in the 1950s as an exercise by the government to distribute resources from the centrally planned economy and to limit population mobility to prevent overcrowding in cities, has turned into a blatantly discriminatory tool against rural migrants.
In a recent move this December, the State Council announced on its website that Shanghai will limit its population to 25 million people by 2035 as part of a quest to manage “big city disease”. It defined “big city disease” as arising when a megacity becomes beset with environmental pollution, traffic congestion and a shortage of public services including education and medical care. The government set a similar limit for Beijing in September this year, declaring that the city’s population should not exceed 23 million by 2020. Beijing already has reached a population of 21.5 million in 2014. Such moves are clearly meant to target the migrant population that forms the bulk of migrations in both these megacities.
Beijing, critics point out, has already started the gentrification process and sent migrants, called “low-end population”, back to their villages under the pretext of a 40-day safety campaign that began after a major fire in Beijing’s Daxing suburb killed 19 people including eight children. Activists fear the same would now be employed in Shanghai to quell the number of rising migrants.
Realising the “Chinese Dream”: a challenge and opportunity for Xi Jinping in the New Era
Speaking at the G-20 summit in Hangzhou in 2016, Xi Jinping proclaimed with confidence that China had lifted more than 700 million people out of poverty and improved the living standards for 1.3 billion people overall. The “Chinese Dream” put forth by Xi in 2012 aims to build a “moderately prosperous society” for all Chinese citizens by about 2020, around the Communist Party of China’s 100th anniversary (2021) and become a fully developed nation by about 2050, around New China’s 100th anniversary (2049). Along with these lofty ideals, the Party understands that its legitimacy is closely tied to its capacity to pull the remaining 70 million people out of poverty and reduce the huge inequality gap as a result of lopsided reforms.
For people like Sheng ayi, eking out a living without the fear of being removed from Shanghai is a Chinese Dream. It is also her Chinese dream to live in a cleaner environment, get access to affordable housing and medical facilities and earn the same benefits a Shanghai hukou entails. It is ayi’s dream to see her son settle down and have enough money to visit her family back home with enough money to travel in a high-speed rail. It is her dream to live a dignified life, as promised to every citizen by the Chinese Communist Party.
Xi Jinping has plans to make China the best country in the world. He has provided a blueprint for the “great” Chinese revival on the world stage. All this will be reflected in the way China treats its migrants like my friend, Sheng ayi.
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