Herculean tales from the Olympic city
By Cindy Sui

BEIJING - To celebrate the Beijing Olympics, Song Guiling and her husband invited family and friends to their newly purchased and beautifully decorated 12th floor apartment, where they served freshly wrapped dumplings and spectacular views of the fireworks rehearsals for the opening ceremony.

"Life in Beijing is much better than before," said Song, 50, who considers her household to be representative of the average Chinese family.

Throughout China's capital, whose population is now officially more than 17 million, visitors can hear stories much like Song's - of people whose lives have improved, even if by just a little. Through ambition, frugality, government policies, a bit of luck and lots of hard work, residents here - including people who've come from the countryside - are bettering their lives.

The Beijing Olympics has shone a spotlight on China and perhaps what's most noticeable is its economic transformation - from a struggling command economy with most people depending on the government for their jobs, housing and other needs up until the 1980s, to what's soon to be the world's third-biggest economy.

Yet per capita income still lags far behind that of developed countries, and urban dwellers are much better off than rural residents. Urban per capita income reached 8,065 yuan (US$1,191) in the first half of 2008, up 14.4% year-on-year, while that of rural residents was only 2,528 yuan, though up 19.8%, according to government figures.

Those in big cities are perhaps the most fortunate. Per capita income in Beijing is much higher than the national average. According to its municipal bureau of statistics, per capita income of urban residents in the capital was 21,989 yuan last year, up 13.9% from 2006. Rural residents in Beijing made 9,559 yuan per head last year.

As people seeking higher wages continue to move from the countryside to the capital - its population, up from less than 14 million in 2001, includes 5 million people recognized as migrants - pressure is maintained on the country to sustain a pace of economic growth that can pull more people up from poverty. The following stories told to Asia Times Online offer glimpses to how some are making it, while others continue to struggle.

'All our colleagues ... bought apartments' Song's family is a typical middle-class Beijing family. For years she and her husband lived off basic salaries of several hundred yuan (about US$100) a month, raising their only daughter frugally, making her clothes, and not splurging. Song worked as a nurse and he as a podiatrist.

They started off living in dormitory-style, one-bedroom units assigned by his employer, and sharing a communal kitchen and toilet with several other couples. After rising in seniority, they were eventually upgraded to a small one-bedroom apartment and their monthly salaries rose to the present 5,000 to 6,000 yuan ($700 - $800).

Last year, the couple used their savings to buy a bigger two-bedroom apartment, not far from the Olympic venues the Bird's Nest and Water Cube, for 300,000 yuan. The price was well below the market average because Song's husband's company is a state-owned hospital, and like many state-run firms it subsidizes employees to buy company-built homes.

The two were also each given a lump sum by their companies from the housing funds they had been contributing to - and their employers matching - for years. With the 100,000 yuan they received, plus their savings, they were able to buy the apartment without taking out a bank loan.

"All our colleagues who have about 20 years of experience like us have bought apartments," Song said.

With an apartment that's all paid for, the couple spends only about 2,000 yuan a month and is able to save 10,000. They are using that money to help their only daughter pay for tuition at a university in Australia.

"We'll only have to do this for a couple of years. She'll soon graduate and earn her own living. Then we won't have any major expenses," Song said.

According to China's policy, women can retire at age 55 and men at age 60. She said she is already being sought by other hospitals for post-retirement work.

Upon retirement the couple will receive about 75% of their salary. When Song turns 60, she also qualifies for a old-age pension. Unlike elderly people in some developed nations - such as the United States - the couple has health insurance for life through their employers.

"I think in China ... you can get somewhere," Gao Chao, who is in his 30s, does not work for a state-run company and can't acquire subsidized housing. Still, he has managed to buy two apartments in the past few years, one in a suburb of Beijing and the other in southwest China's Chongqing municipality.

With a government scholarship, Gao was the first person from his village in northeast Shandong province to go to college. From there, he went to work at a small newspaper in Beijing, making only 1,000 yuan a month.

But a few years ago, Gao made a move that changed his life. He quit journalism and began working for an advertising and public relations company where his salary eventually rose to 10,000 yuan after he was promoted to assistant manager.

With the higher wage, and by living conservatively, he saved enough for a down payment on a 500,000 yuan apartment in Beijing's suburb of Tongxian in 2005. He bought his apartment in Chongqing municipality a year later for 210,000 yuan, accurately seeing the area's potential for growth. This month he sold that apartment for 300,000 yuan. By his account, the apartment shot up in the property boom that followed China's entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001 and its winning bid for the Summer Games. Now, Gao plans to buy additional, and bigger, apartments in central Beijing.

But not all of China's 30-somethings are so successful.

"It's mainly hard-work that got me where I am today," said Gao. "My family's situation is not great, so I had to work hard."

With his family still farming back in the rural village, Gao felt pressure to make more money. His income now pays for the college tuition and living expenses of his two younger siblings. He also sends money home to his parents.

For Gao, it was his college scholarship that brought him life-changing opportunities. "My older siblings and former classmates in Shandong are still farmers," he said. "Many kids back home can't afford even to go to high school. They stop after junior high."

Even so, "I think in China if you work hard, you can get somewhere," he said.

'Our success is due to our hard work' Gan Hefeng, 43, left her family's farm in central Anhui province when she was 21. Her father died young, her family was poor and she needed to help her mother raise her siblings. Unafraid of menial labor and other unwanted work, Gan became an ayi , or maid, for Beijing families. There were times when she earned as little as 45 yuan a month, with only two days off.

As an increasing number of foreign expatriates moved to the city, she began working for them and soon earned about 250 yuan each month. Now, Taiwanese and local Beijingers are her best-paying bosses, paying at least 400 yuan a month, with an extra month's earnings on Chinese, or Lunar, New Year, she said. One even gave her free tickets to the Olympics.

Gan now cleans three homes a day on weekdays and two a day on weekends, earning 4,500 yuan a month. The line of work has become so lucrative that her husband and brother are now also working in the traditionally female profession.

"It's hard. I work from 8am to 8pm. Each day, I clean three 80-square-meter to 160 sq m apartments. With such a short time, I work nervously. My employers like me; that's why they keep referring me to their friends," said Gan.

Like many migrant workers, Gan left her two children in her village with her mother-in-law because she could not afford to raise them in Beijing. But a few years ago, she was able to bring the younger one, her daughter, to stay with her. Her son is in high school in Anhui, where he lives in an apartment she and her husband bought for 230,000 yuan a few years ago. They spent another 70,000 yuan remodeling it and still have savings left. They didn't need a bank loan.

Her biggest pride, however, isn't financial stability - it's the fact that her son came third in the county’s high school entrance exams, competing against 10,000 students.

Gan is not bothered by talk about the wealth gap in China. She said her husband once saw how much money one of his employers made. "We couldn't believe it. We could never earn that much money in our lifetime. But we're satisfied, as long as our children do well in their lives," Gan said.

Gan's family could not afford to keep her in school. She started work at 7 years old - collecting pig and cow dung to use as fertilizer and tending cows. She was also charged with taking care of her siblings.

"I told my children: 'If you can get into college, no problem. As long as I can work, I will put you through college,'' she said. "Our success is due to our hard work. I have two hands like most people, it's just that I work hard."

'It's difficult, but I'm still trying' Cheng Xianjun came to Beijing in 2001 from southwest Sichuan province, seeking redress for being wrongly accused of her husband’s murder. He was killed during an attempted robbery when the couple were sleeping. Cheng had not planned to stay long in the capital, but she later found a job sweeping the tunnel near the Scitech department store.

She normally works 12-hour days, making 700 yuan a month. She lives with her colleagues, mostly women from Sichuan, in a windowless dormitory in one of the numerous tunnels in Beijing built by order of the country's then leader Mao Zedong in the 1970s for anti-air raid purposes. During the Olympics, she's needed to staff the tunnels for 16 hours a day, making an additional 500 yuan.

As a single parent, she took another job a few years back to try to make more money to keep her teenage daughter in school, hoping to eventually to send her to college. With rising inflation, she's had to pinch pennies more than ever.

"Prices for vegetables and meat are rising very fast. For us low-income people, it's a big impact. For the short term, it's ok, but if this continues long-term, we can't handle it," said Cheng.

With her meager salary and the 980 yuan tuition and 400 yuan a month on living expenses for her daughter, who goes to a boarding school for migrant workers’ children in Sichuan, Cheng saves no money.

Her daughter will be a senior in high school next year.

"She wants to go to college. After the Olympics, I'd like to find a second job," said Cheng.

Still, she considers herself fortunate. Her only hope of moving up the economic ladder rests on her daughter. If she does well in school, makes it into college and finds a good job after graduation, their lives may improve.

She and her daughter have never been to the famous tourist sites in Beijing nor seen the Olympics venues. They haven't even watched any of the competitions because their dormitory in the tunnel has no TV reception.

"It's difficult, but I'm still trying," Cheng told Asia Times Online.

The lucky ones
Still Cheng, along with Song, Gao and Gan are the lucky ones. People in the countryside make far less than even Cheng, and many have no means to find jobs in the cities.

Whether China's economy can continue to grow at double digit speed, and whether the cities can absorb the mass influx of migrant workers, will determine how many people will have the opportunity to improve their lives.

Cindy Sui is a freelance journalist from Taipei.

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