Hard work takes on new meaning in villages bled by urban prosperity

By Wan Lixin
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail Shanghai Daily, August 31, 2016
Adjust font size:

For years, water has been seeping in from walls under the windows in many homes in my neighborhood on rainy days.

After long delay, haggling over costs, and false starts, renovation formally started recently. A sort of glue had been applied to the exterior of the walls, and then a worker was sent in to make the interior of the walls water-tight.

Basically the work involved chipping off the original layer of plaster, replacing it with layers of new materials, and finally having the surface polished.

It was complicated and time-consuming, and in suffocating heat the worker, Mr X (forgive me for not having asked his name), paid my home no less than seven visits in three days' time. The whole renovation was done in messy surroundings: paint and plaster chips were everywhere, and to prevent dust from flying about, sometimes the windows had to be shut tight.

But Mr X went about his work methodically and seemed to be in no rush.

On the last day when I was confronted with his finished work, I marveled at how the neatly polished surface contrasted to the messy surroundings where it had been achieved. This miraculous transformation has been wrought by dedication, patience, and the simplest tools.

Satisfaction of simple work

If I was so moved as a spectator, then I can only imagine the kind of satisfaction Mr X might have experienced as the creator. But if he felt any pride in his work, he did not show it. The beauty of simple manual labor is that you know exactly what you are paid for, and can accept your fee without any qualms of ill conscience.

Mr X comes from Qidong, in Nantong, Jiangsu Province, right across the Yangtze River from Shanghai. When I learnt he was 57, I conjectured his children must have all grown up, and he replied: "I do not have any burden."

After a moment he elaborated by saying that he has only one 17-year-old daughter. Unlike a son, on whom rural parents are expected to sink a huge fortune in building a house (a lou, or multistoried building, in most coastal areas today) to attract a future daughter-in-law, an only daughter does not entail such obligations. In time you just "give away" a daughter, in return for handsome dowry gifts. But an only daughter is very rare in rural areas.

Although Mr X has a daughter, he was dismissive of the custom of "gift money," believing as he did that only compatibility in character and personality could lead to lasting harmony in a matrimonial alliance. As a consequence, Mr X's family circumstances enable him to pursue a simple profession.

But he was aware of frays in the social fabric. He noted that some years ago, when he began to work for a building crew (Nantong has been known as "town of construction," thanks to its many construction teams that take contracts all across the country), the job was so valued that workers went to extremes to keep their boss happy and thus get more work.

Today it is the other way round: a boss needs to go out of his way not to offend a worker in order to retain him.

Paradigm shift

Yes, there is talk about shifts in demographics — but probably we are witnessing a more fundamental change in social values and ethics. Since time immemorial, Chinese villagers have been firm believers in honesty, diligence and frugality. But today, valuing work "by the sweat of your brow" is gradually being supplanted by the principle "by hook or by crook." In villages, the traditional emphasis on character, filial piety and hard work is now replaced by the simpler metric of "success."

And "success" stories in villages, like those in cities, are generally a mockery of those time-honored virtues.

A recent report in the publication Environmental Education on rural conditions by professor Jiang Gaoming from the Chinese Academy of Sciences is revealing in this regard. Since 2005, Jiang has been involved in an ecological experiment in a village in Pingyi, Shandong Province, which has brought him into intimate contact with local villagers. Among the many changes he's described is the sinking in of the message among villagers that industriousness does not necessarily lead to riches (contrary to the official slogan touted at the beginning of the market reform era).

In the market economy, agricultural products become commodities, satisfying a market where the lion's share of the profit is reaped in by intermediaries or manipulators possessing the capital to leverage the market, rather than ordinary farmers at the bottom rung of the supply chain. Those who stubbornly stick to the soil have, all too often, turned out to be economic losers.

One explanation for this is that over the past decades, the growth in prices of agricultural products have been insignificant compared with rise in labor costs.

For instance, during the past 35 years, the price of wheat and corn have risen five fold, while wages for urban workers have jumped hundreds of times.

Many "enlightened" peasants have chosen to abandon their fields and sought employment in cities where they can earn annual salaries of 20,000 to 30,000 yuan (US$3,000-4,495).

Jiang observed that there are only three types of villagers who managed to achieve a kind of prosperity without leaving their villages. The first are those engaged in industrial-scale poultry or pig farming. This trade may be lucrative, but the stench and waste they generate are seriously polluting. The second are those capable of privatizing and monetizing resources formerly deemed public, like sands in local rivers; again to the detriment of ecosystem. The third type are those glib of tongue capable of cheating huge sums of rural subsidies from local government.

As Mr X also observed, many villagers no longer believe in hard work. To be a neatly dressed real estate broker or even a delivery men scurrying about on a motorcycle is more dignified; though, as Mr X observed, being a plasterer requires skills and training. I'm more worried about the allure of some shady dealings that have multiplied in recent years, like those organized telecom scams.

Scamming as a way of life

According to a Oriental Morning Post report from August 26, in China the number of people engaged in telecom scams is estimated to be at least 1.6 million, creating a business worth over 110 billion-yuan annually.

The recent report of a few high-profile telecom scams victims have alerted us to the social costs of these scams. For instance, police have captured six suspects responsible for the sudden death of a university student in Shandong after she had been cheated of 9,900 yuan.

The youngest of the suspects is 19.

Rather than continue to point accusing fingers at these young men, officials at all levels should reflect on why these sturdy villagers would find cheating more worth-while than, say, tilling the land or working as a plasterer?

According to www.thepaper.cn report, a telecom scammer in Anxi, Fujian Province, can make 750 yuan a day if he meets the minimum quota of sending at least 100,000 scam messages, creating huge business for local telecom operators.

Rather than finding this suspicious, local telecoms have been steadily expanding capacity to cope with the surge in message traffic.

Why are scams allowed to be practiced at such scale, in what was once known as "a nation of ceremonies and propriety?"

These questions cannot be answered by simply rounding up a few young swindlers, who, in a sense, are themselves victims.

Follow China.org.cn on Twitter and Facebook to join the conversation.
Print E-mail Bookmark and Share

Go to Forum >>0 Comment(s)

No comments.

Add your comments...

  • User Name Required
  • Your Comment
  • Enter the words you see:   
    Racist, abusive and off-topic comments may be removed by the moderator.
Send your storiesGet more from China.org.cnMobileRSSNewsletter