A return home to China is now a worrying trip.
By JOE ZHANG, FEB. 22, 2001.
The New York Times, IHT.
Once a year, I return home to see my relatives and fellow villagers in several remote parts of Jingmen, in Hubei Province in central China. Despite bumpy mud roads and long-haul buses, seeing them really gives me a wonderful feeling.
But my recent trip, just before the Chinese Lunar New Year, got me worried. My 40-year-old sister, Yuqin, has become almost addicted to playing mahjong, a type of Chinese chess. Trouble is, she and many of her neighbors have plenty of time. They are unemployed and not actively looking for work because the prospects of finding it are not good.
I told Yuqin that long sessions of mahjong could be bad for her health. "It is just a way to kill time," she replied. "After all, you cannot turn away neighbors too often, can you? You know, everyone, old and young, plays mahjong these days."
Mahjong is, indeed, sweeping China. In the cities, the army of retirees is growing fast. The People's Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, reported that more than 25 million Chinese could be unemployed and looking for work in 2001. On top of that, it referred to 150 million surplus farmworkers plus a monthly pool of 6.5 million laid off state workers still receiving token pay and benefits.
Many Chinese workers are forced to retire as young as 45 as state-owned industries downsize to save money and become more competitive. A lot more are made redundant or "xiagang" which means employees are officially still on the staff list, but receive a fourth or a fifth of their normal wages for being idle.
My other sister, Junmei, and her husband both work at an electricity plant. Not surprisingly, they turned down a voluntary redundancy package in December.
In the countryside, some industries are collapsing, taking with them associated services like restaurants and small shops. This is happening in my home village, Gongchang. Yuqin and her husband count themselves lucky and relatively wealthy. He runs a small shop selling daily necessities. But since the demise in 1999 of a local shoemaker and a nearby cement factory, his business has declined.
Ten years ago, some of my fellow villagers ventured into big cities, such as Wuhan, to work on construction sites. But a downturn in the urban property market over the past five years has cost most of them their jobs. Now they have returned to the countryside.
Three years ago, Yuqin leased her small piece of farmland to other villagers. But she is now planning to terminate the land lease by the end of this year to start farming again
For some of my fellow villagers, relief has come from an unexpected quarter in the past two years. Being inveterate gamblers, they bet their life savings on the stock market, and have made handsome gains effortlessly. In these two years, stock prices have broken so many new highs that it has become almost a no-brainer to play the market.
But both my sisters, Yuqin and Junmei, have taken my advice and stayed out of the stock market. Now they complain that I told them to do the wrong thing despite the fact that my brother, Hualiang, who lost his job as a banker last October, has never bought stocks because he knows, in his words, the "interior" of the listed companies better than many others. When many companies are rotten a stock crash will surely come.
Two months ago, Hualiang failed in a bid to acquire a state-owned vegetable oil plant. He could not afford the price the city government had asked for. "I may have to become a full-time stock investor, like thousands of others" he told me — only half in jest.
The writer, a Hong Kong-based analyst at an investment bank, contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.