– Encounter on a Train Trip in Mainland China
I bought a hard-seat ticket rather than a sleeper berth in the Beijing Western Station and took the journey to Xiamen, a costal city of Special Economic Zone with joint ventures – factories that are labour intensive.
This is a Post-Mao and Post-Deng ‘s People’s Republic of China, where the Marxist theory of the exploitation of surplus were casted aside and another wave of Globalization is happening and spreading on this planet.
China has changed drastically over the last two decades of Open and Reform policy with the central government’s policy of attracting foreign investment, joining of WTOs and an authoritarian and centralized socialist market reform – the state-initiated low-cost of infrastructure, labour and capital along the East Coast. Mao’s utopia of a peasant and worker’s paradise of an egalitarian has metamorphose into a technocratic para-dystopia while China has built a net-work of Fast-Speed-Train called ‘Harmony’ with the maxim speed of 300 kilometer per hour and sent a space-craft with man and woman landing on the Moon.
The journey will take thirty-four hours to get to the destination – Xiamen or Amoy, where tea in English comes from the local dialect. The slow train is cheaper and I will see much of the low-income earners – not possible in the Bullet Train that carries the new-rich middle class or professionals or CEO, not possible on the budget flights either. Journey will cover the Norther China Plain, crossing the Yellow River, Yangtze River and then travel into the mountainous region and long the Nine-Dragon river.
With a 1.3 billion population in China and a larger proportion of peasants in the countryside – 70% of the total population, peasant don’t make much profit tilling on the land with the high cost of fertilizers and low price of market purchase of either state or private sectors, China imports more grain from Australia and exports more manufacture goods and products – a sort of living fossil of the English Industrial Revolution in the early 18th century – sort of Dickensian noir and witty, a Orwellian despair and control. Imagine that businessman was considered as the lowest rank in the Confucius ideology of order, harmony and benevolence with the son of heaven as the emperor with who built around of nine ranks – an idyllic paradise of pavilions, cranes and cloud.
However, with the rapid economic growth and a blind pursuit of GDP, China suffers tremendously with smog pollution – an environmental catastrophe, and psychologically, peasant-migrant workers who leave behind their children in the mountainous regions and countrysides and work in the sweat factory where trade unions are a puppet and industrial relations negotiation are none. The next generation’s psychology of these children will be an issue. The liu-shou or the left-behind children are left with their grand-parents to look after.
‘The rapid development of export processing and technology experimental zones across China……was based on the massive harnessing of young peasant-migrant workers in particular of women, who are often the cheapest and most compliant labour.’
The train scurry through the Norther-China Plain and enter a night of new passengers with the contours of dark mountains outside of the train windows in vague and drowsiness in the fluorescence light glitter in the reflection in the passenger car. Peasant-migrant workers boarded the train at four in the morning as I am on a long haul. These people of young wanna-bes who look like the Hong Kong pop star, middle-aged men and women with or without kids carry their luggage and find their seats with the computerized bar-code tickets. A middle-age woman with her daughter sat besides me as I was sitting by the window and theirs on the aisle. We didn’t talk until the midday after lunch.
I started the conversation with the woman called Ms. Liu. I did not ask where her husband was. She told me that her daughter was twelve years old and she went back to the factory and looked for a secondary school where her daughter could attend to. She started to work in the factories: shoes, textiles, bricks and plastic toys since the mid-nineties. She lives in the countryside: probably with her parents in a large house. Maybe she had a relationship in the late nineties and her daughter was born. She was very independent, looking slightly exhausted with grayish hair and wrinkles on her face. She negotiate a deal with the supervisor on the mobile phone and she rented a room of about Aus $ 85 bucks near the factory in the industrial garden zone. Her daughter looks loverly and full of expectation to go to a new school and starts a new life with classmates. She left her boy-friend or husband a few years after her daughter was born. She had her daughter left behind in her home-town and looked after by her parents in the remote mountain region.
‘At the same time,while the productive labour is absorbed in the free labour market nationwide, children and the elderly often have to be left behind because they are denied access to basic welfare in the urban areas…’
China has leaped forward into an era of consumerism, mass-productions and chains of fast-food. The marriage relations are also fast with woman financially independent and self-reliant. The Confucius patriarchy is smashed like a shallow shadow ghostly before the locomotive at the eerie night.
I am single and looking at the single mum with a very smart teenage girl looking at her mum and in earnest trying to find her mum a new partner. Putting the tears and sweats and all the hardship aside, I felt affected by the generation-x-y-z or whatever single nuclear family; yet, I am only a traveler on the road. The conversation offers me a glimpse of a modern and contemporary China.