When he was about twelve, Bing
wanted to be a soldier. His father
spoke to him passionately of his
days in the army, and Bing had seen soldiers in his
town and on television: he admired their bearing,
their uniforms, their pride. Besides, he thought
that if he were a soldier he would be able to leave his town and see the world. And if he was lucky he would have a chance to defend his country like the historical figures his teacher spoke of: none of them was more riveting than Chairman Mao and the story of how he freed his country.
When I said that I wanted to be a soldier, my sisters encouraged me. They told me that since I was a man, I could go wherever I wanted.
Bing was born in 1980, just before China launched its family planning policy, encouraging each family to have a single child. He had three sisters; the eldest, who was almost fifteen years older than him, looked after him like a mother when their parents went out to work in the fields.
Bing was born in Fuping, in China, but he was
just over a year old when his parents decided to
leave their hometown to try their luck in Zha
Lantun, in Inner Mongolia. They were very poor
and they believed that in those remote lands
they would have more and better opportunities.
They first herded sheep; later, they began to raise
chickens. His family’s income depended on the weather: if the crops and animals grew, the family got by. If not, they didn’t have enough to eat.
When he turned six, Bing started school. He didn‘t like it: he was smart but naughty, and the teachers didn’t know how to handle him. Bing still remembers the time when he was nine or ten years old and he stole a lollypop from a classmate because he never had money for lollypops. The other children found him out, chased him and tried to hit him. But at home he almost never went hungry.
They gave me everything they could. I was the only boy and the youngest.
In traditional Chinese families, the mother and sisters go without if necessary so that the youngest son gets enough to eat.
Didn’t your sisters resent that?
No, they respected the tradition, and besides they loved me a lot.
When Bing was fifteen, his parents’ chicken ranch started to go well, and there was a bit more money. So they bought their first colour TV.
I first saw what big cities were like on TV.
What did you think?
They had so many colours! In my town there were almost no colours: white in the winter, green in the spring, yellow in summer, gold and red in fall. In the city, though, all the colours mixed together at the same time. It was amazing.
Bing decided that one day he would see that world. But before that, when he was sixteen, his father sent him to a faraway school: in the small city of Haila’er, to the far north, several hours from Bing’s town by train, there was a reputable institute which, thanks to the chickens, Bing’s parents could afford.
It was fearfully cold in Haila’er. On Bing’s first day it was -45°C. The teacher took the students out into the courtyard to get some exercise. He told them that if their ears hurt from the cold, they should rub snow on them; that way, a little skin might come off, but if they rubbed them without snow, he explained,their ears would fall off. He also told them to work hard.
If you do work hard you can be successful, make something of yourself. If you don’t, you’re going to be a nobody your whole life.
Rural migrants often assume that employment opportunities are better in big cities; they are often right, although the people in search of work usually outnumber the opportunities
Bing never forgot that. He graduated from high school with very good grades, but when he took college entrance exams he failed because his handwriting was bad, he says. He couldn’t get into the military academy to make his dream of being a soldier come true. When his father found out, he cried. Bing had never seen him so sad, so disappointed.
I wanted to escape, to run away. He had such high expectations of me, and he had spent so much money on me… I was willing to do anything to show him that I had not failed him. I heard about a business school in Tianjin that would take me; I asked him to pay for my first year and after that I would pay for it myself. My father was going through a hard time financially, but he gave me his last savings to help me study. That was how, in the end, I came to the city.
Bing was nineteen and felt that he was coming into a new world. Tianjin is a coastal city one hundred kilometres from Beijing. It has ten million inhabitants, and is becoming the newest pole of Chinese economic development. When Bing got off the train, he thought it had even more colours than he had seen on TV. Bing couldn’t believe how tall the buildings were or how many cars he could see.
Bing shared a room in a university dorm with seven others and started attending classes. Everything was going well, though the city was too noisy, too full of strangers; he missed the stars that he used to see in his hometown. Shortly after arriving, he discovered that he could make a little money by giving Chinese classes to foreign students, but it took him a few months to set up his first serious business.
At his college, there were public phones
that required special cards. Bing found a
place where he could buy these cards cheap, and started to sell them to his classmates for twenty or thirty percent more.
You mean, you took advantage of your roommates?
Didn’t that trouble you?
No. But I didn’t want them to be angry with me either, so I included them in the business. I would give them cards to sell and we would share the profit, stuff like that. That’s the Chinese way of doing business: get more people to participate and earn money, that way you know they will support you. If you want to win, you have to share your prosperity.
Bing earned enough money to pay for his
studies. And, when he graduated, he came
up with a better business: he and a friend got two old machines and opened a small copy shop across the street from the university. The business was a success. Suddenly, Bing found himself earning more than 200 yuan – US$25 dollars – a day. He was twenty-one years old, rich, a self-made man, a true entrepreneur.
Bing bought a mobile phone and felt like the
king of the block. His dreams were coming
true, and it had been so easy. Soon he would be able to bring his parents and show them what he had done. Meanwhile, he spent his money on clothes, books and stamps.
After a year, the owner of the store told them that he would substantially raise the rent. Bing and his partner couldn’t afford to pay so much more. They couldn’t find anywhere else to go and, just like that, his life as a businessman vanished into thin air.
I had forgotten what it was to work hard. I thought that everything was easy: I thought I could do whatever I wanted.
Bing got a well-paid job at a computer company, but never actually got paid. He couldn’t find another job and, after three months, he had to ask a friend to put him up. Bing couldn’t always afford to eat. Someone told him that they were hiring waiters at a large karaoke club called the Oriental Pearl. Bing applied and, after a few days of training, he was serving food and drink. Now he was earning in a month what he used to earn in a day.
That was a terrible time, but I tried not to let it get me down. Anyway, there was no way back. I couldn’t go home; my father would never have accepted me as a loser.
The Oriental Pearl is a sort of shining
monster, several storeys high with a hundred
rooms where customers drink, sing, relax, have fun. Bing has been working there for five
years. Intelligent and persevering, he was given several promotions and now he is a lobby manager; he has many people working under him. He earns about US$500 per month and he saves two-thirds of his salary. Bing now has about 100.000 yuan – US$13.000 – invested in stocks for when he decides to start another business. Bing says he wants to be like the man who owns the Oriental, and six more clubs: a
native of Tianjin who started out with nothing, and is now rich and successful.
You went to business school, had a business of your own and now you work in a karaoke club. How do you feel about that?
Here in China it is said that at thirty you have to be someone. Well, I still have four years left. And for now I’m saving and getting ready to set out on my own.
What are you thinking of doing?
I’m not sure, but I was investigating the market here in Tianjin, and I think there’s room for a store that sells brand name purses. So I could open one and sell a lot of purses.
Originals or copies?
Copies, most likely, so I’ll earn more money.
Bing thinks that it is logical and fair that some people have a lot and others very little. According to him, rich people are the ones who have potential and work hard; they deserve what they have. Poor people don’t work hard enough, he says.
You mean that China is a country of lazy people?
No, the thing is that China only started to open up recently. And to a large extent success depends on the environment you are in. That’s why I wanted to come to the city, where you can be successful.
Since China undertook market reforms,
around 150 million young people have
migrated from the countryside to the cities
in search of success – or at least the possibility
of eating every day. Most of these young people were a part of the first wave of
migrant peasants who provided cheap labour to factories in the cities. The more skilled
migrants, like Bing, are a sort of second wave who have better prospects and more resources. They all converge on the large cities and they have changed the way of life and physical appearance of these cities.
The city is the place where things happen. The city is the future, where anything is possible.
Bing has a girlfriend who was just fired from her job in an office because “her clothes were too sophisticated”. She and Bing are planning to get married in 2008, the year of the Olympics. He says that that will be a joyous time for everyone and he wants his wedding to be a part of the celebrations.
So, if everything turns out well, what will your life be like in ten years’ time?
Realistically, I think that in ten years I will have my own business, people working for me, a house, a wife, a good car.
An Audi, definitely.
Bing isn’t worried about the fact that he doesn’t have a hukou. The hukou is the document by which the Chinese government gives each person the right to reside in a certain district and, hence, to use its schools, hospitals and services. The vast majority of the 150 million migrants don’t have a hukou, and their status is a major political and social question, a matter of constant debate. Though they are no longer sent back to their places of birth, they still don’t have full access to services where they live. Still, if you have money it is not so hard to get a hukou, and Bing says that that is not going to stop him.