Hidden Beijings 2: Factory Boss

The April 25 clothing factory fire in Jiugong, in the south of Beijing, made the New York Times, but there wasn’t much sense of the people behind the clothing industry. Last Week, Southern Weekly ran a profile of a former migrant worker and Jiugong factory boss named Li Zuming.

Li Zuming arrived in Beijing from Sichuan in 1990, aged 21. He first worked selling buttons and zippers in a central Beijing hutong, before getting together with two partners and investing over 2 million yuan to open a clothing factory, which could earn 300,000 a month. But financial difficulties ensued after one his partners started sleeping with two female accountants, so Li teamed up with a local Jiugong resident to start a new factory, and this required taking the local police out to karaoke, restaurants, and saunas. The usual deal was that the police would contact him, saying that they wanted to take him out and introduce him to ‘a friend’. Li would inevitably end up picking up the bill at these meetings, and he spent more than 300,000 yuan entertaining local police and officials in this way in 2001.

Boss Li, and a well camouflaged flask

Around 300 other bosses from Sichuan opened clothing factories in Jiugong, amounting to a near monopoly of the local clothing industry. But relations between the bosses were good, since they were careful not to step on each others business territory. The bosses would eat together almost every week, and if one of the party was celebrating a birthday, these restaurant trips would extend to card playing and conversation back at one of the bosses homes. At birthdays, red envelopes worth between 100 and 1000 RMB were exchanged, meaning Li could earn 20,000 RMB on a good birthday. For the spring festival, the bosses would drive back to their hometowns together.

Sichuanese migrants were originally just workers in Beijing, but it wasn’t long before the Sichuanese were bosses themselves. By this last decade, a regional hierarchy emerged in Jiugong. Chongqing migrants opened restaurants, Northeasterners ran the local mafia, people from Henan province were just poor. In Jiugong, more than 50 percent of the migrants were classed as ‘half illiterate’ or had only attended elementary school. One time when Li was smoking a pack of 5 RMB Honghe cigarettes, he noticed a migrant worker looking at him envyingly. ‘Brother’, the migrant said to Li, ‘that’s enough to keep us going for a month back at home’.

Jiugong gangster mash

Despite the relative wealth the capital, the pool of migrant workers in Beijing has shrunk. In 2000, according to Li, if you offered 300 yuan a month plus food and lodging, workers would be ‘knocking down your door’. Migrants were so desperate to keep their jobs that ‘if you didn’t listen to the boss, he’d kick you so hard you didn’t dare to fart’. These days, factories have trouble finding workers: ‘whoever can find staff, that’s a boss’, according to Li. And the new generation of post-90s migrants have a different attitude to work. Li finds himself struggling to make himself heard over his young cohort, who are used to listening to music on headphones during work hours. Although settled in Beijing, with a son developing a Beijing accent at a local kindergarten, Li is considering returning to his hometown to open a clothes factory. ‘Every time i go back the local officials call me in to discuss the idea’, he says.

thanks to jiugong resident jeremy o’sullivan for the photo.

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Two Hidden Beijings

New census figures show that migrants make up a third of Beijing’s population, but it’s still rare to see an in-depth investigation into the lives of the city’s different migrant communities. Two features in two Chinese magazines published last week provide just that.

The first is in Lens, the photographic supplement that comes with Caijing magazine, which ran a story about drug abuse amongst Beijing’s Uighur migrants. According to the article, migration from Xinjiang to Beijing started in the 80s, and was originally centered in the Weigongcun and Ganjiakou neighbourhoods (both in Haidian, Beijing’s university district) which became Beijing’s two ‘uighur towns’. Migrants would start with a small kebab stand before moving up to running a restaurant. In late nighties, because of the demolition of some uighur areas, the community moved to new locations near to Beijing west railway station and the southern Daxing district.

One Xinjiang migrant returns to the site of his demolished home

Heroin use only became possible in the community after a certain level of wealth was achieved, and in the early 90s (when growth rates passed 14% annually) a lot of people got rich fast. ‘At that time, doing drugs in the business community was like doing drugs is now in the performing arts community, a mark of identity’, said one (Han Chinese) former drug addict. Lack of awareness of the dangers of drug use amongst the generation which grew up during the cultural revolution, and also the lack of drug education provided in minority languages. contributed to the increase in drug use. ‘Every time someone died, we’d go to the dedicated Hui minority graveyard west of the fifth ring road to see them’, one former Xinjiang resident said.

This Xianjiang woman's children both died as a result of drug use, but she chooses to stay in Beijing, finding life in her hometown boring. 'Whenever she wen't back, she'd go on to her neighbours about life in Beijing'

The article describes a community for recovering drug addicts, built south of Beijing’s fifth ring road, by former Renmin university law student. The community is home to 300 people, and one third are long term drug addicts. The center provides needle exchange, methadone treatment, training and education, and also receives regular visits from local authorities who carry out drug-urine tests. Similar facilities exist in the Panjiayuan, Weigongcun, and Fengtai areas of Beijing. Those living in the community can make a living from running restaurants and doing business, but receiving drug treatment isn’t always easy. ‘We say that methadone turns a married couples into brother and sister, going to bed and just sleeping, with no sexlife at all’, one of the residents says.

next: the birthday parties of Sichuanese factory bosses.

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Booze and vegetables in an Audi A8

Southern Weekend has two reports on the healthy and not-so-healthy consumption habits of Chinese politicians.

The first exposes a secret vegetable farm in Beijng’s Northeastern Shunyi district, which has supplied organic produce to Beijing’s customs department for more than 10 years. Special vehicles arrive from the department three times a week, loading up with a over 1000 Jin of cucumbers, tomatoes, aubergines and other vegetables each time. The vegetables are grown by local villagers using only organic fertilizers, ensuring fewer health risks for the customs department staff. The scene inside the farm sounds idyllic, with a fishpond, peach trees, and six sheds packed with produce, including fresh cucumbers which can be eaten direct from the ground without washing. Business is thriving: ”They buy whatever we grow’, says one of the growers. Apparently, Beijing’s western hills district is peppered with farms providing wine, eggs and vegetables specially for government departments.

According to the report, the practice of ‘special provision’ (特供)of food to government departments by dedicated farms exists in every province. In Xian, the provincial high court obtains food from a dedicated farm 30km outside of the city, an office of the Hubei government has an arrangement to buy a special kind of luxury rice, while one office of the Guangdong government hires villagers to come and grow vegetables directly at their training center. In Beijing, the practice was spurred on by the Olympics, a number of farms who provided food for that event went on to become government providers.  Under the system, providers undergo regular quality inspections, and can have their special provider status removed if they fail inspection more than once.

The 'beijing customs vegetable base country club', as the farm is euphemistically called

The parallel system of food provision for the government, and strictness of the safety checks for government food contrasts badly with the almost daily news of new food safety scandals effecting ordinary people (today: fake pig’s feet). ‘Don’t the leaders say they share our hardships?’, one commenter on Southern Weekend’s website asks. (But on the positive side, with enough investment, maybe special provision is the model that can be scaled up to finally solve China’s food safety problems)

The second report is on Maotai Baijiu, still proving a favorite with politicians and leaders of state owned enterprises and the army, according to the report. Some tidbits from the article: Government enterprises won’t serve anything below 53% proof Baijiu, the head of Sinopec’s Guangdong branch, recently shamed for buying expensive alcohol with government money, should be praised for buying Baijiu in bulk as its cheaper than buying it per bottle, and industry leaders present car of choice is the Audi A8, because it looks like the kind of car which would be driven by government department leader.

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Sit on the cold floor

Southern Metropolis Daily reported today on the use of detention centres by village governments in Jiangsu province. The centres are used to imprison petitioners, violators of the one child policy, as well as who refuse to consent to forced demolitions.

The report traces the origins of the detention centres back to ‘study classes’ (学习班), which were first established around 2008 to deal with ‘abnormal petitioners’ (非正常上访).  According to the article, almost every village in the province established similar study classes, which were used to force villagers to consent to demolitions of their property, marking a transition in local government tactics away from forced demolition (强制拆迁towards ‘forced voluntary demolition’ (被自愿拆迁)

The article describes conditions in the detention centers as ‘hellish’, One man from Sihong village who refused to consent to a demolition recalls the kind of physical trials imposed on prisoners, including

1. Crouching in a stance 蹲马步
2. Slapping with the sole of a shoe 互扇鞋板
3. Sit on the cold floor 坐凉地
4. Keeping the head up 头不能低
5. Holding a water basin flat 端水盆

Two former prisoners demonstrate 'slapping with the sole of a shoe'

According to the article, the central Jiangsu government was unaware of the centers, kind of surprising given how widespread the practice apparently is.

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Suzhou strawberry cancelled: lightening or crackdown?

Just heard that Suzhou’s Strawberry Music Festival, planned for this weekend, has been cancelled. The ticketing office confirmed to me that the festival will not go ahead, saying they were told the news at around 1pm today, but didn’t know the reason why. I called Modern Sky’s office who said that the cancellation was because a lightening storm had damaged their sound equipment, and advised me to check their website for news of how to get a refund. Weather reports don’t show any storms in Suzhou yesterday, but there were some the day before, apparently. Perhaps lightening works slowly.

A friend working for a music company in Beijing said the cancellation might have something to do with the Zuoxiao Zuzhou, who might have been detained along with his wife yesterday at Shanghai airport. But according to Modern Sky’s website he’s not on the lineup of either of the festival this weekend (he played at their folk and poetry festival earlier this month). So maybe this is really a case of bad weather rather than the current political climate and tighter controls on cultural events. Interested to hear more about this. (also: modern sky really need a new website design…)

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Rejoice! Xizhimen gets a repair

Department of Yay: For all those who have experienced the marathon-like transition between line 2 and line 13 of the Beijing subway at Xizhimen  (西直门) station.

Beijing papers reported today that a new underground path is in construction which should ‘dramatically reduce’ switching times between line 13 and lines 2 and 4. The new path should be opened by this October. Hurray!

Xizhimen subway: still not as confusing as the road network

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Arguments about mental health law in China Youth Daily

China Youth Daily reported today on disputes over China’s  new mental health law, set to come out later this year. The piece is quite frank about how under the current law, dating from 1985, powers to forcibly section those suffering mental illnesses have been abused to stop petitioners  (上访户)from petitioning and to settle personal disputes, causing sane people to end up in mental hospitals.

To deal with this problem the new law is meant to ensure mental health assessment by an independent tribunal for anyone who is forcibly sectioned. But according to the article, there are disputes about who the tribunal should be composed of, with lawyers arguing that more members of the public should be included, while doctors prefer a larger number of other medical professonals. Also there won’t be enough resources to provide a tribunal in each case, according to a Beida doctor quoted in the article.

It looks like the huge lack of resources for mental health treatment is the underlying issue. According to the article, an estimated 16 million people in China suffer from severe mental illnesses, but there are only 2 million mental hospital beds available. The shortfall, as well as the poor quality of mental health services in China is a probable factor in of a number of cases of violence in China recently, something acknowledged by Chinese media. So how disputes about this new law play out is worth paying attention to over the coming months.

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