After reading about the chaos at tourist destinations and the impossibility of getting train tickets during the recent National Day holiday, I straddled my traveling bicycle even more smugly than usual as I rode around the Shandong countryside. I try to take these bike trips any time there’s a holiday. It’s partly to avoid crowds, but more because it gives the reality check that anyone who does commentary on China should have periodically.
Two things were especially reinforced on this trip. The first was the second-class feeling that farmers have, and seem to mostly accept.
It’s a bit cliché now to talk about “the diversity of China” but when you spend even a little bit of time in the countryside – which still comprises about half the country’s population – you get a feel for how there really are (at least) two Chinas. This isn’t simply a natural cultural occurrence. It’s cemented into law.
Every Chinese citizen must have a Hukou (household registration) that ties them to their place of birth. It affects opportunities in everything from education and healthcare to employment and it’s divided into two distinct categories: urban and rural. Obviously, those with urban Hukou are at a much greater advantage.
Traveling around these villages, it was apparent that there’s often an inferiority complex among rural farmers when meeting urban dwellers. At one point my (Chinese) girlfriend and I stopped to rest alongside a group of farmers harvesting corn. We heard someone say, “Ah, look at their skin. They must be urban citizens.” (They then debated as to whether I was urban Chinese or foreign. They eventually came to the correct consensus).
In conversations, the farmers were very deferential to both of us, sometimes almost in awe. One young woman told my girlfriend how smart she must be. She lamented that she didn’t know anything. In several instances, even when I wasn’t with my girlfriend, she’d ask people where the cheapest hotel was. They’d tell her things like, “The hotels here are really too poor for you. You should go to [the nearest city].”
The obvious gap in urban-rural incomes is of course a big part of this. But the mere existence of separate rural and urban hukou wreaks of the “separate but equal” American segregation policies of the early 20th century. The 1954 Supreme Court decision abolishing it correctly stated that “separate but equal” is inherently unequal. When one group is obviously disadvantaged compared to the other, separating them through law resigns them to a self-fulfilling expectation of social inferiority.
The second thing I felt on the trip is how separated these rural farmers tend to be from the items that typically dominate the news cycle about China. I met several who had either faint ideas or no idea about things like Bo Xilai and the Diaoyu Island dispute.
This was the height of corn harvesting season, so farmers were especially busy, but I got the sense that the average rural farmer’s daily schedule goes something like this:
Sunrise-noon: Farm work
Noon-2:00: Afternoon Siesta
2:00-Sunset: Farm work
7:00: Watch provincial dance/singing/dating program
You’ll notice nowhere on that schedule is anything like “debate one another on the merits of Communist Party rule” or “scour Weibo for juicy tales of official corruption.” Most have simple lives that focus on extracting the most they can from their two-acres of land. Political developments outside those two-acres are non-issues.
Most young people in their 20s and 30s go out to do migrant work and undoubtedly have more complex lives than that. What I found interesting about this trip was that there were a lot more of these people helping with farm work than I’d seen in the past. I’m not sure how much that has to do with it being the holiday and peak harvest season and how much is a result of the economic slowdown.
We made a point of talking to several of these young people, but none expressed too much concern. Even if the economy stagnates and jobs are hard to find, eventually something will come along. They can help out their older parents with the farm work until then. At least that’s what they seem to believe.
These are just some simple observations from one rural corner of Shandong. I don’t mean to generalize them completely to all of rural China, but they come from the type of area foreigners don’t tend to go to. When pondering China’s social/political/economic future, it’s important to remember that nearly half of China lives in areas very similar to this.