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  • Blonde in Beijing

Capitalism from the Point of View of a Chinese Migrant

It is funny how volunteering works. I am not sure about you – but after volunteer work, I wonder if I received more from the experience than the recipient. Such was the case when I volunteered with three teenagers last month to help them prepare their English for an interview for an international high school. These students were the children of migrant workers, which is an extremely critical issue today in China.

During China’s urbanization, a very strict hukou system was enacted to ensure that there was not overcrowding in major cities. The way the hukou system works is that when you are born, you are registered to the place you are born. You can access all the public services and government benefits of that location for free. However, if you move to another location (even another city inside the same province), you are ineligible for that location’s benefits, unless your hukou is changed officially due to work or study sponsorship. When I refer to benefits, I am not referring to food stamps or subsidized housing (to my knowledge, China doesn’t have this) – I am referring to that you cannot get a car plate or own property in this new location. Your children are also unable to attend public schools. It is not a fringe population that migrates to another location without hukou. Most of the low-wage laborers in Beijing are migrant workers, living without benefits or a support system, saving up money to send back to their families in the countryside.

If these three teenagers were to be accepted into this international high school, their study expenses would be covered under full scholarship. Their graduation from such a high school would most certainly mean they would attend university. If they could attend university, it would doubtlessly mean they could find a job with a company that would support their hukou – if not in Beijing, then in another major city. Essentially, their lives would be transformed. When I worked with them, I could feel their hope – as well as a deep subconscious fear that perhaps they would fail. It made me want to teach them to the utmost best of my abilities – and I scoured my mind for techniques that I thought they could use to improve their English within two weeks.

Near the end of our sessions together – and as their answers to my mock interview questions improved more and more – I began to loosen up and ask them about their lives. Their stories and opinions on life enthralled me and also made me ponder once I returned home. The stories of their families – and their struggles – made me wonder about the nature of capitalism. It made me wonder why small-scale capitalism in the United States seems to be ever more elusive. I remembered how all of my favorite local companies and restaurants from when I was a child had shut down – replaced mostly with big box chains. I wondered if at some point, the market becomes so mature that there is no longer any opportunities to rise – and if this is indeed the case, what can we do about it?

When I asked about her life story, one of the girls I tutored started decades before she was born, weaving a tale of family drama, intrigue, struggle, and finally, an element of financial security. She told me her story in a quintessential Chinese style, as if her story was sewn together by the threads of fate. Her eyes lit up as she spoke and it was almost as if she was telling me a fairy tale, rather than her own family’s story.

Her father had to drop out of school when he was a young boy to help on the family farm. However, he was so tormented by his parents’ constant bickering that he ran away from his home in Henan to Guangzhou, where he got a job in a factory that made electric watches. It was in Guangzhou that he met her mother, who was also a migrant worker, working at a nearby factory. They got married and decided that they did not want to raise their daughter in Guangzhou, leading them to make the long journey to Beijing. Her father found work driving cargo trucks, while her mother began to work in a small seamstress shop. Her mother worked long hours and had to suffer greatly at the hands of the shop owner, so she saved up money and bought her own sewing machine.

She wistfully remembered helping her mother during the weekends when she was an elementary school student in her mother’s small shop. Her mother specialized in sewing curtains, which was difficult for one person to do. She would count on her daughter to help her measure the curtains to make sure they were the right length. Sometimes, she would also use the sewing machine herself, if she could do something simple to help her mother. Eventually, however, the news of her mother’s curtains began to spread and attract customers. Her mother’s shop began to make a profit – to the point that her mother decided to invest into another sewing machine – and then another. The girl proudly noted that her mother’s shop now has ten sewing machines and that her mother employees several people. She giggled, calling her mother’s enterprise a “small factory.”

The father reconciled with his parents, and in a move of Confucian filial piety, moved his parents into their small apartment in Beijing to help take care of her and her new baby brother. She smiled as she told me that her father no longer has to work as a truck driver; he now is a curtain installer. Her mother makes the curtains and her father delivers them and installs them in the customers’ houses. After telling me this story, she reached into a large plastic bag and took out a big pink pillow with stitched designs all over it. In heavily accented and at times broken English, she said, “My mother made it for you. She wants me to thank you for being my teacher and helping me prepare for my interview. I don’t know how it will go in the interview, but I will try my best.”

It had been a long time since I had heard a success story of such unbridled capitalism. It almost felt like the quintessential American dream to me – a woman works hard every day, working her way up from a factory worker to owning her own shop and employing people herself. It made me realize that I grew up in the United States with very few such stories; even though I grew up in a family of small business owners. Most of their experiences seemed to be narratives of having grand dreams. but finding the business climate too difficult to realize their visions. Thus, they made due with modest profits and earnestly waited for new business opportunities to arise. I wondered if I had grown up in China – with the countless stories of entrepreneurs who made something out of nothing – if I myself would be much more inclined and enthusiastic to start businesses of my own.

Soon after this interaction, I taught a young man. His English was impressive for a Chinese person, partly because he practiced it every chance he got (essentially whenever he saw a foreigner.) He was chubby and got so excited about speaking English that he would speak it too fast and start tripping over his words. When I asked him about his story, he told me a story that was much less enthusiastic. He had been born to older parents, who were struggling in their relatively old age to provide for him. Instead, his older sister (who had managed to go to a Chinese university in Hebei, but had not managed to get Beijing hukou) supported both him and his parents by working in an office; sacrificing her future for her brother’s. Although she was close to thirty, she still was not married and worked tirelessly to provide for them. His parents had been out of work for the last four months. They had a stand where they sold bread and traditional Chinese breakfast items at a market. Unfortunately, this market had been determined illegal by the authorities and was torn down. They had not been able to find a new market to sell their bread.

It is at this point in the conversation that I asked him a pivotal question – what could the government do to help the migrant workers? I was surprised at his answer. “Because I am a migrant, I think that the government should be open and supportive to people like me. But I realize, that if everyone was able to move to Beijing, the city would quickly become overcrowded and my family would probably suffer because of the increased competition. I like what the government is doing right now.”

Considering the fact that the government had just torn down the market where his parents made their livelihood, I was quite surprised to hear him say this. But when I asked him to explain further, his answer brought me a great deal of clarification to many of the articles I had been reading lately; in particular, the government’s insistence to move companies from Beijing to the surrounding Hebei province. He said: “The government is forcing big businesses and state-owned enterprises to move outside of Beijing and into Hebei. These companies have a lot of money – and by being forced to relocate and develop other regions in China, it will provide people like my family new opportunities to open businesses in these new areas. We can’t compete in Beijing – the cost of business is too high and apartments are too expensive. But we can start shops and compete in places that are less developed – and we will. The government is forcing the big businesses to pay up, so that we can have opportunity. The little guy can’t always suffer.“

The way he pictured it – there were two types of capitalism: the capitalism of big business and the capitalism of the little guys. His family belonged to the latter type – but they could no longer compete in a place that was so developed and so expensive. In his mind, the government’s coercing relocations of major businesses allowed for a new wave of low-end capitalism; a new wave of opportunity for his family.

To be honest, I am still trying to get my head around this logic. How can capitalism include a government’s coerced relocation of business (at the expense of this business, no less)? But yet, I understood what he was trying to say. And it was true – many more small-scale entrepreneurs were going to have opportunities because of these forced relocations. Who knows? Maybe his parents will open up a small bread shop nearby one of these relocated businesses (only possible because the cost of doing business had decreased so substantially) and are successful. Maybe then, they will open up a second bread shop and a third.

My interactions with the teenage children of these migrant workers reminded me of the fact that the power of the unleashed entrepreneur is limitless. As China develops its own policies to unleash the next generation of entrepreneurs, it made me wonder how we are going to unleash our next generation of entrepreneurs in the United States. I am not sure how we will do this – but there is one thing I do know for sure: If we in the United States are to compete globally in the upcoming century, we must unleash the creative and entrepreneurial power of our young people.