Beijing: free trade at a cost

Senior Sam Sherraden, an international affairs major and former Hatchet photo editor, spent the summer studying abroad in Beijing, China and will spend the fall semester further north in Harbin, China. Twice a month, he will share his experiences and observations from the Far East as one of GW’s many expats.

Before China “opened” itself to international trade, foreigners could only shop in one place in Beijing: The Friendship Store. It was once a bustling marketplace of foreign passport-holders and the only place in the country to buy imported goods. But after two-and-a-half decades of economic reform, China’s cities have changed. The Friendship Store, located on the infamous Chananjie Road – the site of the student protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989 – is now a hallway void of commerce and filled with jade souvenirs. The gaudy gold-plated lettering and the empty halls inside the store are a symbol of a pastage.
Now, Chinese and foreigners flood stores like Esprit and IKEA, go ice skating in malls and keep tabs on fashion trends and technologies that, in comparison, make D.C. look more like Mobile, Ala. than the capital of the free world.
Since China joined the global marketplace in the early 80s, the changes have certainly been astonishing. But this new face of China is only part of the story. For many Chinese, life hasn’t changed so drastically since the mid-80s. The vast majority, especially those in rural areas, remain as poor today as they were 20 years ago. Urban development and focus on economic growth obscures the reality that many in China still remain very poor.
I remember driving into Beijing for the first time this summer, seeing construction site after construction site, wondering how in God’s name so many buildings were being built. But when I started to volunteer at a school for the children of migrant workers, the answer became very apparent. With a population of around 1.3 billion people, there is a virtually inexhaustible workforce. There are some 150 million people who have migrated from western and central provinces to China’s developing coastal regions seeking employment. From the ghettos outside the city where they live, parents and their kids take buses, ride bikes and walk to their construction sites and cleaning posts. In Beijing, there are more than a million of these migrant workers.
For about 100 of these workers, there is an opportunity to train in a vocational course studying to be an electrician, plumber or a worker in hospitality services at BN Vocational School, where I was volunteering. During the summer I taught the students “Service Industry English,” which means I taught them how to have basic conversations with foreigners and how to ask things related to their vocational training. Some of the students can say, “Can you show me the problem?” and “It’s fixed,” but could never order a meal.
One weekend, I went to visit the students’ homes. The majority live outside or around 5th Ring Road – about an hour and a half from the city center – in neighborhoods unofficially organized according to their province of origin. For example, those coming from Sichuan are concentrated in a given area, where Sichuanese people can speak Chinese with the same accent, can eat the food they’re accustomed to and make connections with friends and relatives. Entire families occupy single rooms one-third the size of a quad in Thurston and unsanitary bathrooms are shared among rows of 20 families. Although their incomes are higher than in their home provinces and employers are benefiting from their low wage demands, these millions of migrant workers in China are paying the difference in the social costs of the country.
I couldn’t have asked for a more realistic introduction to China’s cities. Despite the hard lives my students had, they remained optimistic and knew they had to capitalize on the opportunity they had been given. But they are only 100 of millions. The rest are waking up before dawn, laying bricks all day and returning to 5th Ring Road for dinner. At first glance you may not see them in the shadows of multinationals and the glamorous new cities, but these people are the workhorses of China’s new development.

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