Anyone who has been to China for more than one day would find it difficult to classify China as a communist country. Hell, you don’t even need to go to China to know that it’s not. Just look at all the billionaires buying up all the property in the United States and Canada. You didn’t see any Russians doing that back pre-1991. The worst of capitalism and its treatment of workers can be seen all across Shanghai. According to one of my tour guides, young people in Shanghai are often stuck working in fast food or retail jobs where the requirements are 10 hour days, 6 days a week, for an average of 5000 RMB (about $730) per month. They are paid once a month, and if they quit, an employer will often hold their last paycheck for several months. The lack of worker rights and protections has given rise to a true communist movement among some young people, a movement the government is suppressing because it would interfere with the push for global economic domination.
However, employment in government enterprises still appears very communist to me in that there are lots of workers without much to do. Silk and jade factories employ dozens of people to stand around until a group of tourists comes through when they demonstrate means of production for a few moments until the group moves on and the workers become passive statues once again. The sales floors often have more than one employee per customer available for assistance. This is arguably much better than, say, your average Home Depot experience where it can take you 15 minutes to track down anyone to help, but also entirely unnecessary. Banquet hall sized restaurants that cater to tourist groups are the same. Small armies of uniformed employees loiter among the tables, just waiting for enough people to come in to eat so that they have something to do. At the museum entrances, scores of young women stand, ready to guide you through and feed vast and deep historical knowledge directly into your ear through the use of bluetooth headsets in a voice barely audible to anyone without one. All of these people likely only get paid a pittance, but they are employed nonetheless.
Aside from all this prompt, efficient, and attentive service, another upside of excess government employment is that China is a fairly clean country. I expected far more litter than I saw, but everywhere you go, men in reflective gear are sweeping the sidewalks, collecting recyclables, or picking up litter with pincers and placing it into baskets on the front of their bicycles. On the bullet train, smartly uniformed employees walk up and down the aisles continuously for the whole route, sweeping imaginary dust from the spotless floor into their dustbins. Compare this to the end of my trip when, 8 hours into my 11 hour flight from Beijing to Los Angeles, the garbage in the airplane bathrooms was overflowing into the sink and onto the floor. The American crew was in no hurry to empty it.
The final very non-American, if not communist, employment situation I encountered was that of the national hero on display for all to admire. The famous terracotta warriors were discovered in 1974 by a farmer digging a well to water his crops. When the government realized this man had unearthed artifacts from 210 BC, they took over the farmland and began a mass excavation and restoration process, eventually creating an incredible museum complex where thousands of the soldiers are on display. But what happened to the poor farmer? Well, they installed him in a room where he could sign autographs for all the tourists and there he sits to this day, all these decades later.
I met the man and shook his hand, but I did not take his photo. I’ve always felt weird about photographing local people when I travel. They aren’t animals in a zoo or oddities in a museum; they are real people and what I’m witnessing is their real lives. But I took a photo of the tools he was using and the hat he wore on the day that changed his life forever. So here you go.
For the Christmas and New Year’s holiday in 2018, I spent 12 days in the People’s Republic of China. The trip marked the first time I had been to Asia in over 16 years. In these 12 posts, I share my thoughts, observations, and feelings about the PRC. For a highly readable, more in-depth account of past and future China from a westerner who lived there for many years, I recommend Rob Gifford’s China Road.