Friday, January 20, 2006

Borrow A Mouthful

[Below is the transcript of part of the dialogue I had with a Beijing cabdriver yesterday, thanks to my tiny MP3 voice recorder which I carry everywhere now with me. Mr. Wang is in his late 40s. He’s been driving cabs in Beijing for 20 years. Ten years ago, he made 3-4000 yuan a month, which was a lot of money. Now he makes only 1800-2000/month (US$200-250), below the average income for Beijingers, thanks to rising gas prices and intensifying competition. His wife, laid off from her job, brings in 900/month. They have a daughter in college. The family income is just enough for them to get by. Mr. Wang suffers from high blood pressure, back pain, and gout. Gout rendered his feet swollen but he can’t afford taking a break, because there’s no sick leave and the monthly due to the cab companies is 5000 yuan.

Before the dialogue below, Mr. Wang had just spent 30 minutes missing the old days under Mao and lambasting the medical reforms, CCTV and the communist party.]


Me (attempting to steer him towards more positive thoughts): Do you think there are still many people who want to work as cab drivers?

Wang: A lot. There are a lot.

Me: Oh, so the jobs still provide some stability, at least bringing in food on the table.

Wang: How should I put this? Many cab drivers complain. Of course they complain because they only make one to two thousand yuan a month. They complain at the company, in front of company officials. I don’t like to complain, so I’m usually quiet. But I was surprised that one time, a company official said this, “if you all think driving cabs is a tough business, tiring and not earning much money, who the hell asks you to remain in this business? The cab companies are not dragging you into this business, are they? In fact, y’all squeezed your ways into this business.”

I heard this and I felt very upset, you know? I stood up and walked over to him. I said, “Manager, how come the words you just said bothered me? The colleagues complained that this business has no money and is very exhausting, and a few other things. Why can’t they complain? There are areas that could be improved, you know. What you said about us squeezing our ways into this biz made me think of a lot of things from the past.” He asked what kind of things from the past. I asked if I could ask him a few questions, if that’s ok. He said sure. I asked if he had ever watched the movie The White-Haired Woman (note: a very famous communist propaganda movie about evil landlords and despairing peasants in the dark ages of Nationalist China)? He answered yeah, I’ve watched it. Then I asked, do you remember the evil landlord Huang Shiren who exploit the peasants? He said, yeah, I remember. I said everyone knew he was exploiting the peasants and sucking everything out of them, but the peasants still went to work for him; why is that? Why is that, I’d like to ask you? I said that to the manager.

Wang (turns to me and asking in the wry Beijing way): Young fellow, do you think what I said was sharp or not?

Me (chuckle and admire his quick wit): Great question, I wouldn’t have thought of that retort myself?”

Wang (turning serious): I told him I have one more question. Have you heard about the mines in Fen Zhou, I asked him. (His voice rises to a piercing level) Before the collapse, the Fen Zhou’s mine was dangerously flooded with water but still people went in to work. These people they knew they were being exploited, oppressed, and extorted, yet they let themselves be extorted. This is a heart-rending situation. You, you guys shamelessly ask us, who on earth ask us to stay in this business? You sit in your comfy office and make over ten or twenty thousand yuan a month. We only make two after toiling for an entire month. You are sucking our blood. Right? (pause) He said nothing. The manager said nothing. (pause) It’s not that we don’t want an alternative. But we don’t have one. Isn’t that right? We can only do this to borrow a mouthful of food from you, selling our flesh to borrow a mouthful. (pause) We are the sacrifice of the market reform. Reform and opening up are good, things are getting better. There has been development, a lot of it. But we still have to borrow a mouthful. How is this different from the days of Huang Shiren?

Me (doing my rational bit): The reform is complex. There are different groups of people; some benefited, other didn’t. Those benefiting would say the reform has been good.

Wang: Yes, there are people who benefited. We don’t object to people making a lot of money. We don’t object to people eating and drinking fancy stuff. We don’t object to any of that. But we can’t accept the “merciful” words from those who benefited, words telling us that we should be grateful for the jobs we have. Of course we’ll never realize our dreams. But can’t we at least dream a little? Who doesn’t have a brain that thinks and desires? Struggle? How dare we struggle? It’s not that the Beijing cab drivers never went on strike. In 98, the airport cabs did just that. No, it’s in 99. August 1st 1999, I remember very clearly. July 1st was the birthday of our party. Very clearly.

Me: What happened in the end?

Wang: They got sentenced for “seriously disrupting social order”! Striking is a right from our constitution. But they got sentenced. Who dared to strike again?

[Mr. Wang declined to speak on camera. He said the day he quit his job at the cab company, he’d let me interview him. Mr. Wang is a typical Beijing cab driver in the sense that he’s talkative and extremely opinionated. Most cab drivers would open up and share with you their lives’ hardship if you ask them. But Mr. Wang’s boiling anger is rare. I sincerely hope that he’s an oddball, a rare angry man among the 17 million Beijing residents, which he claimed he’s not. For otherwise I’d have to start believing the bleak pictures painted by some Western media about China. ]


Ken (The Runcible) said...

This is a vicious cycle: lack (or disrespect) of minimum wage and benefit protection in labor laws allows employers to cold-bloodedly exploit the little guys, which yields hugh profit and in turn opens more opportunities for them to recruit more people from the country side willing to work for close to nothing.

In Li Yang's movie "Blind Shaft", there's a line that says "In China there's a shortage of everything but people". The sad truth is, no matter how much Mr. Wang bitches and whines about his job, sticking it to the Man is probably not an option because there's another 1000 sucker out there waiting for his job.

Beijing cab drivers are cool. I love talking to them.

Anonymous said...

From the anonymous again:

Very interesting story. In the last paragraph you mention, that you are starting to believe the picture of some "Western media"?

Do you mean the reports about suppressed demonstrations and riots?

I think the potential is there, but the cause, the initial reason for Chinese to come out isn't.
A lot of my friends are unsatisfied with the situation, but hesitate to think in terms of country improvement as they have resigned of trying. Now they all think of themselves and that's one of the faces I got from China.

BTW: Is it possible to get the original MP3 from the talk?

Beijing Loafer said...

By "bleak pictures" I meant the interpretation of China's development as going into chaos, because of the country's disregard for independent judiciary, environmental protection and rampant corruption, both financial and moral.

However, I doubt China's complex troubling reality is unique as compared to the paths taken by Europe and the US during their respective industrialization.

I don't pretend to have any inkling of what'll happen to China if it is INDEED in deep shit as some pundits have commented. The luxury of being a writer is that we can think and write, but don't have to do anything "real".

But the vicious cycle has to be broken somehow, because it's not sustainable economically, and it's morally detestable.

Anonymous, send me an email and I'll figure out a way to get the MP3 to you. It's over 50 MB though.

Rickard said...

But he knows the constitution.

I'm not an expert in the PRC constitution, but from what I've heard it's actually not to bad. I think the current upswing in the intrest in law will come back to bite the CCP in the end. Giving people rights on paper that fail to matrialize will get them in trouble.

Beijing Loafer said...

I wonder though without an independent judiciary outside of party control, how could the constitution be upheld to repudiate the party's actions?