Posted by: Nena Cavel | March 25, 2009

The Real China

It seems Beijing and I have passed the honeymoon stage. It happened this Saturday. My plan for the afternoon had been to visit the National Museum of China, where they have, among many other things, the remains of Peking Man. The museum is the largest in China and it runs along one side of Tiananmen Square.

So I moved myself off to Tiananmen, which by public transport from my dorm takes about an hour, only to discover that the museum is surrounded by a large makeshift wall like they put up around construction sites. After walking around for about fifteen minutes to find the entrance, I come across a small sign which states, in English, that due to construction the museum will be closed from 2007 to 2010. There’s not a word about this on the official website, mind you. Nothing! But that’s China for you.

I feel like the American media portrays a skewed image of China. Stories always focus on all the newly rich and middle class Chinese and their stock footage makes China seem more affluent than it is. Sure, there are a lot more wealthy and upper middle-class Chinese than there were just a couple decades ago. The real phenomenon are the hundreds of millions of Chinese that are now above the poverty level, who are lower-middle class.

But even in Beijing you don’t feel that China is a rich country. The public infrastructure here really struggles to keep pace both with the city’s rapid economic growth and with its growing population. The sewage system seems barely able to keep pace. There are manholes everywhere and on a lot of days they emit the most disgusting smells. The pollution is as bad as they say. On bad air days the sky is a hazy grayish-brown and buildings only a couple blocks away look like ghosts. There were a couple of days last week when I just avoided going outside because the air stung my eyes and my throat.

A lot of people from the countryside want to move to the cities like Beijing and Shanghai, so the government has to work to restrict migration to the cities. My Chinese friend and language partner, who is a graduate student here, was telling me about the hukou system. A hukou is like a registration permit for the city that you live in. Social services aren’t great in China and what social services they do have are provided by the local city or province a person lives in.

When migrant workers move to the city, they forfeit their retirement contributions and basically have no safety net. So, Beijing hukous are so desirable because you can receive all the more prestigious social services Beijing has and also your kids (or kid) gets priority admittance into Beijing schools and universities.  For someone who has never lived in Beijing, the price for a hukou is a ludicrous 15 million kuai. You can also receive a hukou if you receive your Phd in Beijing, which is a big reason  why a lot of Chinese students in Beijing are seeking Phd’s.

On another note, I went to go get a haircut on Friday. I asked my Chinese friend to accompany me because I wasn’t confident enough in my Chinese to go by myself. I wanted it a couple inches shorter.  The hairdresser was very persistent in recommending bangs and I had to consistently refuse. On the bright side, a lot of places, including tourist attractions and hairdressers, will give a student discount. The haircut only cost 20 kuai, about three dollars!

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