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A new era for China

14.03.2002

Ding Tei Bing is a metalworker at the port of Qinhuangdao, People's Republic of China. His country is going through fundamental changes as a market economy is being introduced. Ding: "If we do not introduce changes, we will not survive."

BY MOGENS HAVNSØE PETERSEN

Ding Tei Bing and his family live in the port city of Qinhuangdao -- just under 300 kilometers east of China's capital, Beijing. The city has 2.5 million inhabitants. Its name -- Qinhuangdao -- means, in a free translation, "the city of the first emperor".
Bing and his wife, Mao Li Lau, both work at the huge government port at Qinhuangdao. The harbour is one of China's biggest shipping ports for coal. The coal is transported more than one thousand kilometers on a special railway track from the Chinese province of Jiangxi in southeast China.

The government-owned docks occupy more than 18,000 people. 520 of them work with Bing and Lau at the large machine factory on the docks. The assignments at the machine factory are production and maintenance of the kilometer-long conveyor belt that carries the coal around between the ships and the 250-square kilometer large storage site.

SOCIAL NETWORK

Traditionally, a government-owned Chinese company is not just a workplace -- it is the entire social network of the people who work there. The government port of Qinhuangdao has its own hospital, kindergarten and resthome, all operated in a cooperation between the company and the trade union at the company.

The port of Qinhuangdao is facing a new era. The entire company is to be privatised. The country's economic system is changing rapidly. A market economy is being introduced instead of a planned economy. This process involves some fundamental changes.

The biggest change has to do with the turn from a peasant society to that of a modern industrial country. China has always been a nation of farmers, with more than 80 per cent of the population living in the rural areas. China still has 990,000 villages. However, over the last 10-20 years, the traditional divide between city and countryside has changed more than ever before in China's history.

NEW STRATEGY

The changes started in 1977, when Deng Xiaoping took power in China. As secretary-general of the Chinese Communist Party, Deng Xiaoping represented a different policy than Mao Zedong. Following the years of Mao's very ideologically conditioned, but economically disastrous ideas, it was now realised that China had to find a solution to some fundamental problems.

The biggest problems were: a stagnant economy, the shortage of food in the cities, inefficiency of the state-run factories and a surplus of labour in the rural areas. Deng Xiaoping thought these problems could be solved by reforming the economic system and allowing a transition to a market economy.

Deng Xiaoping succeeded in getting the process started, and to critics who accused him of introducing capitalism, he said the now famous words:

"I don't care what colour the cat is, as long as it catches mice."

Liberalisation of the Chinese economy started in the early 1980s. Today, some 20 years later, the change that started then inspires optimism and faith in the future in Ding Tei Bing and Mao Li Lau.

Or, as Ding Tei Bing formulates it himself:
"I had never imagined that I would see the progress which I and my family have experienced over the last ten years. It is incredible."

CONTINUED GROWTH

Measured by its gross domestic product, China is today the world's seventh-biggest economy. Since the start of the economic reform policy in 1978, the Chinese economy has grown seven-fold.

One of the 20th century's biggest economic achievements is the fact that one-fifth of the Earth's population has been able to markedly improve its living conditions in less than 20 years. Despite the major changes in Chinese society and the major social changes in China's many regions during its vehement economic development, economic stability has characterised the development.

In 2001, China became a full member of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Additional liberalisation of China's economy and foreign trade is thus expected in the coming years. In 2010, China is expected to be one of the world's biggest economies. Many foreign companies have already chosen to establish a presence in the form of their own company in China. More will follow in order to get a bite of the huge Chinese market, which is expected to continue to grow rapidly.

BING

Back to Ding Tei Bing. Bing (35) has worked since 1988 as a machine operator at a machine factory associated with the port. He is married to Mao Li Lau (35), who works at the same plant. They have a boy, Ding Yi (10), and live in a 2-room apartment purchased from the state-owned port.

At the plant, the workroom is big, grey and not very well lit. The large windows in the side walls are not too transparent. The room has a natural division in the form of two of the bearing concrete pillars. On the one side are mainly small lathes. On the other side are a number of larger machines. In the middle, Ding Tei Bing stands at a huge lathe and is processing a big workpiece. The end wall is covered by the ever-present slogans in giant Chinese characters. Translated into English, it says: "We must strive for good quality standards."

Bing (in China the first name is written at the end) is the epitome of this slogan. Several times he has won internal, technical competitions at the plant, which -- in addition to the honour -- has also resulted in a cash reward. When you see him work, you notice the calm, targeted movements of his hands -- movements that are characteristic of hands that know what they have to do. The tolerances for his work are 1/100 of a millimeter.

He is a very smiling person, with strong eyes in a pronounced face where the slightly protruding cheekbones radiate strength.

"I became a metalworker because I see a little of it during my four years in the army. I served in a service unit, but actual training I have not received until I was employed here. Today I am able to operate all machines in the workshop," he says.

The job with the factory was something his father helped him with. He knew someone who knew someone. Personal contacts are a necessity and deeply rooted in Chinese culture. Without contacts you are nothing, and that is why some of the power structures in Chinese society are often quite impossible to understand for us as - in this context - more rule-bound Westerners. You may have the fanciest of titles, but if you do not have the right personal relations, your title is worth nothing. However, it has become more normal for a job to be advertised. Around half the positions are now filled in this way.

DOING WELL

However, Bing has found his position in the world's most populous country, which adds 15 million inhabitants every year and where some 1.26 billion (1,260,000,000) Chinese reside at the moment.

"Ten years ago, I would not have dreamt that my family and I would be doing so well. The last ten years have been one long period of progress, when we have become better off all the time. I remember what it was like before and in my childhood. There was poverty and we lived under poor conditions with very little to eat," he says.

No doubt that Bing's own skills have helped get him the good conditions he has today, but there is no doubt either that if the course had not been laid by Deng Xiaoping, China's undisputed leader from Mao Zedong's death in 1976 until his own in 1997, China would still have been stuck with a planned economy characterised by inefficiency and closedness.

True enough, the plant where Bing works is state-owned, but here, too, the market economy is knocking on the door. There is talk of rationalisations which could lead to dismissals. The plant is only one of more which subcontract to the giant port. Bing's plant is covered by a joint ownership structure for the whole port, which employs over 18,000 workers. All in all, 26 different plants are associated with the state-owned docks.

HEAVY ITEMS

Bing's plant and its 520 employees -- 300 of whom are metalworkers -- carry out some of the bigger repair works on the coal shipment installations, and since coal is heavy, mainly heavy-duty items are processed. Bing has quite a lot of work with the rollers and bearings required by the many kilometers of conveyor belt on the docks.

Consequently, the workpieces to be placed in the lathe are not easy to lift up to the lathe. On each side of the workshop hall is a manned crane that carries the heavy, raw -- and subsequently processed -- spare parts. "Manned" is not the right word, by the way, for in each of the cranes sits a woman, just as 26 of the workshop's 68 employees are women.

One of these women is Bing's wife, Mao Li Lau, who operates the machine just adjacent to his lathe. Bing and Lau quickly took an interest in each other when they were employed in 1988 and in that same year they married. The wedding?

"We got married and then we bought two tickets to Beijing and went on a short honeymoon," says Lau with a mischievous smile.

Bing calls it pure luck that they met that way, and he sees no problem in being so close to his wife all day -- on the contrary.

Their day begins at 6 a.m. when they get up and get ready, then make breakfast for their 10-year-old son Yi and prepare him for school, where he starts class at 8:10. All meals in China are hot. Dinner is often purchased as a readymade meal from one of the numerous food stalls which are close to their home.

LONG LUNCH BREAK

They, themselves, start at 8 a.m. and work until noon, when there is a lunch break -- 3 hours during the summer and 2 hours during the winter. They don't always go home for the lunch break. Often they stay at the plant, where they can heat the lunch they have brought with them. Work finishes at 5 p.m. in the winter and at 6 p.m. in the summer. The long lunch break is there for a good reason during the summer, when the moist heat does not further productivity -- especially not in the middle of the day.

There is a lot of overtime worked -- it is organised and has statutory maximum limits, but exports of coal are not allowed to grind to a halt because a conveyor belt breaks down. Overtime pays 50 per cent extra from Monday to Friday, double on Saturday, and three times the hourly pay on Sunday and national holidays -- such as May 1.

Bing says that his and his wife's income varies a lot. Including overtime and bonuses, they total 2,500-3,000 yuan (US$302-362) a month. Being employees of a state-owned enterprise, they do not pay tax, but at any rate the state tax is very low.

Bing and his wife pay no trade union subscriptions either. On the other hand, state-owned enterprises pay 2 per cent of their turnover to the trade union which is organised in the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU).

This union has a serious organisational problem in that the trade unions have members primarily in state-run enterprises, while there is only a weak organisational basis in the steadily increasing number of private companies. In a few years' time, membership in the ACFTU fell from 135 million to "only" 80 million members.

OPTIMIST

Sitting in his apartment with his wife and son, Bing is happy and optimistic:
"We purchased our apartment for 25,000 yuan (US$3,000) which we had saved. We have a regular job in a good factory, and through the trade union we will get a secured old age," he says.

The local metalworkers' union is active and strong and organises leisure activities for Yi and the other children of workers at the plant. Bing does not doubt the necessity of the trade unions:

"The trade union protects the workers' living conditions, e.g. in relation to overtime work but also when we welcome new colleagues," he says.

Bing and Lau are very happy about their boy, but they stress that his choice of a future occupation is entirely his own.

Yi's dream is to enter university and become a scientist. The field of research he also knows already. Astronomy is his strong interest and he has a pair of binoculars to study the stars. Just like most other boys on this Earth, he loves to play football.

His room is a kind of living room also, with an office desk, an old television and a computer. The wall decorations are modest -- an alphabet poster and an oversized dollar note with his face copied into it. He had that made during a family trip to Beijing, which is about 300 kilometers away. This is the kind of thing the family can now afford to do when they go away for the 15 days' holiday to which they are entitled every year.

KAREOKI

The whole apartment is clean and neat. Their wealth by Chinese standards can be seen from a rather advanced TV system in the master bedroom/living room, where a DVD player -- so popular in the East -- is also featured, allowing you to sing kareoki to popular tunes.

What is seen from the street that looks like a closed balcony is in fact a kitchen attached to the apartment. In Bing and Lau's case, it even features an almost new cooker hood above the bottled gas stove. All in all, the apartment is 58 square meters.

Once you enter the apartment, it makes you wonder why there is talk of a special Chinese construction style for dwellings -- that seems exaggerated. There are square concrete boxes everywhere, the only variation being height, and with everything looking a bit worn-down and old-fashioned. External appearances are not focused on -- which can be seen from some external pipe systems at the height of the first floor.

Bing repeats that ten years ago he would not have believed that they would have reached the standard of living they have now.
"Compared with that time, we have a comfortable life. I am an optimist."

To the question of whether he believes progress will continue, he says:
"In our factory, it depends on how well we each perform. If we do not introduce changes, we will not survive."