Quora Question: Is the Working Class Getting Benefits from China's Economic Boom?

A building under construction is seen amidst smog in Shenyang, Liaoning province November 21, 2014. Jacky Chen/Reuters

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So the GDP of China has grown at breakneck pace in the past 30 years or so. According to the information from media as well as some personal contacts, many of the migrant factory and construction workers work under very tough conditions. Nevertheless, they willingly leave their agriculture jobs in the countryside in order to take these jobs, often leaving their children back home with grandparents and seeing them just once in a year (or less often). So I am assuming that their living conditions would be even worse, if they stayed in the countryside. So besides the fact that they are not starving, as was common till the seventies, what improvement to their life conditions they see, let's say in the last 20 years? Can they buy more for their salaries? Do they feel the government and communist party cares for them?

Answer from Karen Ma, Born in China, raised in Hong Kong and Japan, been in Beijing 6 plus years.

I wonder about that myself. While I can't answer all of the questions you've posted here, I will use my helper, a former farmer, as an example here.

I have a part-time helper who used to be a farmer from Jiangsu. She and her husband, also from Jiangsu, both work in Beijing as migrant workers--she a domestic worker, and he a construction worker. When I asked her what's the attraction of the big city, she told me working as a farmer is extremely arduous work. Worse, there was never a holiday because you have to work on Saturday and Sunday as well.

My ayi is tickled to find work in the capital city since about ten, twelve years ago. She was especially happy when she found out she would get at least a day off (Chinese families usually give one day off a week, and expats tend to give two days off a week with pay.) So getting time off is an attractive incentive. The pay is also much much better, anywhere from 30 percent increase to double in income. This increase in income of course is the single biggest incentive for most migrant workers because these days, as my ayi says, "without money you can't move an inch in China."

What does she mean by that? Well, anywhere from medical care to education, nothing can be taken for granted here in China. Although in name, there's a welfare system and compulsory educational system in China, they are so patchy here to be effective. She gave me an example of going to a hospital to take care of her son who broke his leg at one point. Almost everywhere they went, they were told they needed to give the doctors a red envelope (gift money) in order to even secure a hospital bed. (They were told 5,000 RMB was necessary to get a single bed. Now that was the same amount her husband was making in a month at the time. So they weren't able to pay for that.) Then they would have to keep stuffing more red envelopes if they wanted to expedite the care and surgery. They were distraught, but eventually friends came forward to help them through the crisis, and their son had the surgery, after an agonizing wait of two more days.

Education is similarly problematic: they found out "quality education" requires extra money so teachers would teach your kids the real stuff that would matter in the college entry exams in an after school class. A lot of things we take for granted in the West is no guarantee here. Because corruption is rampant, it means the ordinary people have to figure out a way to make more money in order to secure better health care and education for their offsprings, even if it means they have to sacrifice the time they could spend with their kids.

Now don't get me wrong, there's this basic care available in China, but what parents do not want the best for their children? Of course things have improved tremendously from say 20-30 years ago because now people do have a CHOICE to do something about their future and their kids' future, whereas that was simply not an option in the past, and that's saying a lot. (One of the best things that has happened recently is the reform of the hukou system, or family registration system, which took place from about seven, eight years ago. The new system now allows migrant workers to move freely to other parts of the nation. Before that, it was illegal for migrants to move around, and anyone caught with the violation would be sent back right away and with penalties. Even though migrants in a big city would not be able to get any of the welfares that the city provides, they are entitled to enjoy other benefits, including a higher salary. And that again, is a CHOICE they didn't have, and for that, they are grateful.)

The single proudest thing my ayi feels is that they have produced a son who graduated from university and has a stable job now working as a white collar officer in a middle size town. They have managed to change their lives from that of a farmer's to that of a urban dweller's and knowing their son will never have to toil in the fields for a living. Now that's an accomplishment.

The Middle Kingdom is still far from perfect, but that's to be expected because it has only been about 35 years since the country opened its doors to the rest of the world. And China has the world's largest population. So things do take time. I see/hear imperfection everyday while living here, but I tell myself to be patient. Hopefully things will continue to improve.

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Quora Question: Is the Working Class Getting Benefits from China's Economic Boom? | World