Why Santa Was Hot in China This Year
Foreign residents who have been living in Beijing for more than a few years know (and would tell you) that Christmas has really arrived this year. And it certainly looked like it did; it has been everywhere. And not just in fancy department stores or in restaurants frequented by expats, or other establishments catering to the upper crusts of the Chinese as well as the westerners. There are Christmas signs everywhere and most noticeably in public spaces.
Christmas signs being described here are merely the ones visible to all: the colors red and green (as opposed to Beijing’s usual dusty gray), the Santa Claus impersonators visiting schools, the well-decorated Christmas trees in public spaces (or elaborate lights arranged to look like Christmas trees), the festive lights in stores, the Christmas music (either in original language, or reproduced in Mandarin vocals accompanying synthesizers); even an official newspaper picture of a church choir with the caption reading, "A choir sings during Christmas Eve celebrations at the Shanghai Community Church"; the choir being all-Chinese.
Students at the university where I work were collectively ready, excitedly and enthusiastically so, for the arrival of Christmas, asking questions constantly, begging to know if they would have time off; a natural enough inclination. They were not happy to find that, as is the custom in China, university students and instructors do not get any time off for Christmas.
All this — to point out a redundancy — is happening in an atheistic, formally Communist society, and is done with the total support and participation of the government. In fact, if the government were not supportive, no Christmas signs would materialize.
The full arrival of Christmas, a simple-minded person like me could surmise, must have something to do with the maturing of the all-unmentionable capitalist restoration (officially called, Reform) process that began in the late 1970s in China.
For more than two and a half decades, capitalist accumulation in China has led to the development of a professional middle class. This huge professional middle class manages the foreign as well as domestic corporations’ workers, does most of the research and development, marketing, advertising (with occasional originality), bookkeeping, and provides technical support, at the same time that it provides constant translation between foreign and domestic capital and management on the one hand, and the local workers on the other.
As a result of such services rendered, this local middle class has accumulated a vast amount of savings; a dormant capital that will only grow further, which means it is much coveted by the ever-voracious circulating capital, foreign and domestic.
It is natural then, that in the last session of National People’s Congress (NPC; held in March 2006), a few buzz words and ideas could be heard far more frequently than others: consumer rights; legal structures to support consumer rights; maturing from export-based development to one supported by internal consumption; consumer credit (consumer debt); insurance markets; legal structures to punish irresponsible credit handling (read the fine print right); (freer rules of operation for) capital markets;
Naturally, all capital can say is, ‘more reforms please’.
One point that was made into a big deal in the press, though everybody knows nothing will be done about it, was the issue of rural poverty. Since the abandoning of rural communes, the Communist Party apparatus is well aware of the frustrations felt by the people of the inland dffarming communities.
Just for one item close to my profession, when I arrived here about ten months ago, I learned that in China schooling is not free. To be frank, I was shocked. All schools, rural or urban, require an annual fee of at least about $100 (at most about $10-20,000). In the urban areas a $100 per annum fee may not seem too much to some, but in the rural areas that sum is absolutely out of the question for a good majority of the population, whose annual income may be in the hundreds of dollars. As a result, illiteracy rates, especially among girls, in the countryside are very high.
Now, most can guess where illiteracy and poverty go together: Nowhere. And people going nowhere don’t keep on going nowhere without, at some point, getting pissed off.
So, in the March 2006 NPC, as a not-so-well-thought out after-thought, the Communist Party Heads made a big showing of their concerns for the class divides fracturing the Chinese society, driving countryside away from the city (specifically, the rural inlands from the urban coastal regions), and soon perhaps driving the countryside over the cliff. The slogan they headlined: Socialist Countryside.
With the mandatory ‘Ahem’ coughed up afterwards; repeatedly.
Yes; Socialist Countryside. As in, the situation of the poor, abandoned countryside is so dire that an imminent rural uprising encircling the cities must be avoided at all costs, even at the cost of admitting publicly that the Party Heads know fully well how screwed up things are in the countryside, precisely as a result of the Reform Process.
The reasons for symbolically bringing up the rural rear guard are two-fold, at least: to quiet the sucking sound of the migration from country to the city by providing virtual incentives to stay put in poor areas; and to ease the mental frustrations of the relatives of the poor rural folks who have migrated to the cities, and who may send money back home to help those stuck in poverty.
According to a Chinese government website (researched by a helpful Chinese friend), by 2005, nearly 150 million people had left their unproductive farming communities to join the very poorest of the working classes in the cities. The figure of 150 million does not include uncounted millions who have migrated since 2005; especially for the building construction frenzy that has engulfed several urban areas, especially Beijing (where there are some 8,000 major construction sites currently running around the clock), in the build-up to, and aiming to do the milking of, the 2008 Olympics.
These migrant workers need much, yet do not receive any help from the government in terms of assistance for their children’s education, nor for their healthcare, for training, for housing when none is provided by the employers; they get no help to deal with atrocious housing conditions when ‘housing’ is provided, nor for legal help when not paid for months, nor for anything else.
The only thing they receive is a legal pass to resettle in an urban area, from where they can then proceed to fend for themselves. In case you were unaware, it is not legal to relocate internally in China, unless the government has approved it, or unless you are rich and/or a Communist Party member, which means you have the necessary connections to avoid all laws of physics.
So, at the very least, there are about 150 million very pissed off and poor (even though they work like dogs) urban lower working class members that roam the streets of Chinese urban terrains.
Migrant workers may earn a living in the manufacturing plants of foreign capital that has relocated to China, or, most likely, as construction workers building the glitzy high rises in big cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, or Guangzhou. They may regularly not get paid for months at a time. Some may even sleep in vans, though most live in ‘dormitories’ (sometimes as little as tents or prefab structures whose corrugated iron walls are hardly a protection from anything) that are neither heated in the winter nor cooled in the summer, and they sleep on the wooden planks of bunk beds; no mattresses. They have zero access to any health care; God only may help, should they get sick as a result of their atrocious working and living conditions. And their average monthly wages (when they do get paid) is about 500 yuan (about $63). For a scale, a McDonald’s not-so-happy meal in Beijing is about 20 yuan (just under $3). Not that any migrant worker would dream of spending that much money on a single meal, mind you; just giving you some scales.
All this means what is clear to foreign as much as to the domestic capital: profit margins here are sweet, and the pool of unemployed seemingly limitless for capital’s relatively short-sighted vision.
Just to hand another sweet present to international capital, it was reported (in China Daily, December 25, 2006) that a new law allowing private property rights is going to be made ready to be presented to the next National People’s Congress, in March 2007. Such friendly laws together with the World Trade Organization membership, which for China reached the end of its provisional stage this year, point to a rush to create legal structures more conducive to capital accumulation.
Chinese capitalism has matured well, indeed, and the Communist party chiefs, to prove a point should it become necessary, can showcase to the international community a clearly visible class divide, unseen for a long time in China. According to China Daily (December 26, 2006), "The State Development and Reform Commission said the Gini Coefficient, a measure of income inequality, had reached 0.47 for China, up from 0.29 two decades ago. Usually, a country with a ratio exceeding 0.4 is warned to pay more attention to the inequality issue."
Yes; the inequality issue. Pay attention to it.
Here is another figure from the same China Daily: rich people comprise 10 percent of the population yet "control 45 percent of the total social fortune." By contrast, the bottom 10 percent of the population "only control 1.4 percent."
Which brings us back to the Christmas thing. So, you see, China has been so very good that, to put an official stamp of international capital’s approval on the Dear Reform Process, Santa Claus himself was dispatched to town this past Christmas Eve, to show the Chinese consumers-to-be a real taste of the sweet rewards for jingly, dingily sweet-in-a-glitzily schmaltzy kind of way of having had to have finally blinked.
Which is to say, expect things to get worse. Far worse.
REZA FIYOUZAT can be reached at: email@example.com