Posts Tagged ‘chinese migrants’

A slightly belated post for Whose World Order? This time looking at the preparations for the Year of the Rabbit. Happy Chinese New Year all!

Shanghai View: Get ready for the Rabbit

Date: 1st February 2011  |  Author: Raffaello Pantucci,

Categories: China,
Tags: Hu JintaoShanghaiYear Of The RabbitChina

Someone recently told me that with China, you have to add a zero to everything to get the proportions right. Major cities like Beijing or Shanghai are the same, or larger, in population than many European nations. The online population of netizens is now estimated to be around 400 million, more than there are US citizens. Similarly, this time of year, Chunjie (Spring Festival or Chinese New Year), somewhere in the region of 230 million people will make train journeys to get home for the festival. It is a well-worn cliché, but these mind-boggling scales are important to bear in mind when one makes any consideration about why China acts in the way that it does.

Long queues are already forming at train stations and ticket offices as people wait to buy tickets for trains home: in an attempt to stop scalping (which of course still takes place) you can only buy tickets ten days ahead of time, but this means that on days when everyone wants to travel, like clockwork, 10 days out you have a long queue. In Beijing the other day it was reported that all tickets from the city sold out in half an hour. Given the fact that at this time of year everyone tries to get back home to see family (and in Shanghai alone it is estimated there are some 3 million migrant workers), you can imagine how hectic these queues can get. In one incident doing the rounds, an infuriated migrant worker named Chen Weiwei stripped naked and ran into the station controllers office in Jinhua, East Zhejiang, after he waited for 14 hours on two consecutive days to get tickets to go home.

Marketplaces are full of red rabbit stuff. Red is the color of prosperity and happiness, and we are about to enter the year of the rabbit (fyi, we are just leaving the year of the tiger). Strings of faux silk lanterns, chili’s, zodiac characters, large pieces of cardboard with Chinese characters emblazoned on them in gold, and all manner of small red envelopes in which you put money to give to people to say thanks fill market stalls and doorways. The intense red masks the low quality of the items, which I discovered are apparently mass-produced in Guangzhou.

But there is a darker side to this time of year too: friends have told me that they have encountered a growing number of pickpockets. This is common at this time of year as people start to get desperate and realize that they might not have the money to get back home and they do stupid things in an attempt to raise money. It is seen as a great humiliation to not be able to make the family migration for Chinese New Year and as a result there is a usually a spike in petty theft at this time of year as people make one last desperate pitch to raise cash.

Police are also kept busy with an increasing number of drunk drivers. Similar to Christmas time, this time of year is full of heavy drink laden meals resulting in inebriated individuals deciding a drive home is a sensible idea. And of course fireworks become ubiquitous, resulting in invariable fires. In 2009 188 people were killed in explosions related to fireworks at around this time, though this was down on an average of 400 per year between 1986 and 2005.

The authorities are aware of all of this and in response have launched an anti-crime campaign nationally to address these issues, “as the spring festival approaches, mass activities, traffic, fire control and other agencies are adding more security measures for our society.” And while this can be dismissed as the usual government-speak, the CCP is acutely aware of the importance of this holiday to the public. In 2008 when heavy snows brought parts of the rail network to a standstill as people were making their annual pilgrimages home, Premier Wen Jiaobao went to train station platforms in Hunan and Guangzhou to apologize and reassure people that the government was doing as much as it could. Given the bad weather we have already had this year, it is possible that he and Mr Hu will have to do this again this year. The alternative would be the possible wrath of the many thousands who would be directly affected, and the further sympathetic anger expressed by the many millions of others who would scold the government (either openly, online or in conversation amongst each other) for failing to provide adequate services for the public. In Chinese officialdom’s mind, who knows what this might escalate in to?

Chinese officials regularly berate foreigners for pressuring them to do too much too fast, complaining that they are still a “developing country” with domestic priorities which are more important than any foreign entanglements. It can be a frustrating perspective to encounter, but at the same time, at this time of year, it is a bit easier to understand what they mean.


A short and slightly journalistic piece for Whose World Order? over at ECFR, based around a conversation I was quite pleased with myself for having on a train in Italy. A fascinating topic I know that others are doing far more complex and interesting work on than this.

Shanghai View: Mr. Wang’s Children

Date: 18th January 2011  |  Author: Raffaello Pantucci,

Categories: China,
Tags: None

Shanghai View has been on the road for much of the last month, hence the protracted silence. However, during my travels I had the good fortune of travelling through Italy and in particular of going through the Tuscan region near Florence and Pisa. While the slow pace and clear sky is about as far away from China as you can get, Beijing came back to me as I sat on a train from Empoli to Florence and Mr Wang came and sat down next to me.

Mr Wang was originally from a village just outside Xiamen in Southern China. He had moved to Italy almost 10 years ago and though still unable to speak much Italian, he had nevertheless set up shop with a wife and two children and worked in a leather factory near Prato. His son was apparently bilingual, but wanted to move to England to study, while his daughter now lived in China where she was fiercely proud of being Chinese (his characterisation) and had no interest in leaving the country. Typical of Fujianese, Mr Wang came from a large family that had left China to pursue opportunity around the world. He had a sister in Aberdeen, a brother in New Zealand and some others scattered elsewhere that I was not quite able to catch.

He had come to Italy to work, and while he didn’t go into the specifics of how he got there, once there he had clearly worked hard to achieve what he had. He seemed ambivalent about Italy and found there were problems with the locals that he could not understand. While initially bashful, he eventually blurted out that it was because the Italians were resentful of the long hours that the Chinese were willing to put in. This rang true with some stories I have read and heard elsewhere where locals in the textile manufacturing area of Prato have been overwhelmed by the volume of Chinese migrants coming to the city and this has led to tensions. Stories abound in Italy that this is part of a precise strategy by the Chinese government to “get a foothold in Europe,” but going on my conversation with Mr Wang, this seems like an unlikely scenario.

Instead, this phenomenon should be viewed through the prism of human migrations throughout history, as part of which people leave less prosperous areas to reach more prosperous ones. The difference with China is the sheer volumes involved, and the seemingly endless potential for more to come that exists. The issue of the Chinese in Prato is almost half a decade old now, but clearly no resolution has been found and nor is it likely that a tidy one will be. As long as there are Chinese citizens who want to migrate and are willing to take the low paid opportunities offered by Chinese firms in Prato, then this flow will likely continue (with or without government sanction). The same can be said for a vast array of other immigrant communities that are out there and eager to come to Europe or anywhere else.

What struck me as more interesting, however, were the different paths being pursued by Mr. Wang’s two children – one was clearly eager to stay in the West and in fact move to the UK, while the other was staunchly Chinese and had no desire to leave the Middle Kingdom. This dichotomy seems to reflect the reality of an increasingly cosmopolitan and internationalised young China that is torn between a keen interest in the world and a strong sense of national pride. What will be interesting is how the world reacts to this new international Chinese class, and whether it might prove to be the face of future Chinese soft power. What vision are this group going to project of their country in the world as it continues its upward trajectory?