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In Beijing


At the Microsoft building near ZhiChunLu subway station, Beijing, there was a long line of taxis standing by, waiting for Microsoft employees to come out of the building. The taxi-drivers, however, are not inside their cars, but standing next to their car doors which are open. That way the drivers won’t waste gas on the air-conditioning. The weather outside is humid but a bit cool, a little bit of polluted breeze wiffing by the drivers’ sweaty white shirts. All of this is unusual to me because it was 2:00 in the morning.

It’s not just Microsoft. I passed by hundreds of well-known corporate signs on my way back to my apartment. The office lights were still on, and taxis were lined up waiting, hoping for the next customer to come out soon. And just like in any other country these corporations dig their feet in, the office buildings in Beijing are made of glass and steel, offices and cubicles visible for ordinary people, but the guards won’t let anyone into the building without a magnetic permit. Even the elevators won’t work unless the worker swipes his or her card on the elevator’s scanner. It’s like entering an embassy or a military base. Once you enter the premises of a corporation, the laws and rules of the country do not apply. Not even police can enter without proper authorization which most likely has to come from the corporate CEO.

I had the chance to enter a French corporation in Beijing because my underpaid Chinese friend works there. He swiped the cards and entered the passwords and entered the corporate office. Hundreds of cubicles filled with hundreds of underpaid beautiful Chinese boys and girls. They get paid $130 per month for full-time work. One hour of work is worth $1, and if they choose to work overtime, they can get $1.5 per hour. There is no way a Chinese person can live a decent life on $130 a month, and by decent I mean being able to pay rent, utilities, food, and transportation. That is exactly why overtime is the natural choice for nearly all of the Chinese workers. The company doors are accessible 24 hours 7 days a week, and Chinese supervisors encourage the employees to do overtime by providing them with beds, restaurants, air-conditioning (something most of these workers cannot afford to have in their own homes), vending machines, and game rooms inside the office building, making living in the office more attractive than going back home.

These Chinese white-collar employees can’t really complain about how poorly they are getting paid not because it is illegal, but because they are so easily replaceable. "If I don’t like the work conditions here," one Chinese program supervisor lamented, "they can always find another 100 Chinese people to do my job for less. I am so replaceable here." The average employee there spends between 12 to 14 hours a day in the office, unless of course the supervisor repproached them for not putting enough effort or not meeting the deadlines, and thus told that if they wish to stay in the company, they need to put in more overtime hours.

The taxi drivers waiting outside the corporate office buildings in the middle of the night shows how common it is for workers to stay that late in their offices. And the fact that there are so many taxi drivers willing to stand in the heat of the night waiting for potential customers shows that there are probably too many taxis in town, and that even the taxi drivers are working overtime to pay off their monthly dues to the taxi company, leaving them with just enough to feed their families. The beauty of all this is that it’s been going on for a long time that it became the norm. People cannot remember whether life was better before. What they can see is another luminous corporate skyscraper completed, telling the enslaved people that they are living in modern times in a technologically advanced city, with shop windows filled with half-naked women holding ipods and laptops for sale. Twenty years ago people didn’t have a washing machine, and today the luckier slaves get to walk their dogs in the park, enjoying the clear blue sky, and not knowing that in other countries that sky color is called gray.

Oh the rich… how utterly disgusting they are… how they can talk and laugh and walk with their rich friends and groomed pets in the clean streets of the fancy neighborhoods and jump over the limbless beggars in fear that they might get the bottoms of their shoes dirty. Of course it’s all relative. The rich people in Beijing would be barely middle-class in Seoul or Tokyo. The sight of their arrogance and brown cigars and fancy cars would be a cause of laughter to the rich people in Korea or Europe. But it’s just a matter of time before the rich in Beijing reach the level of the rich in the richest countries. They are learning from the White man who lives among them here in Beijing.

There are tons of foreigners in Beijing today, and they are heavily concentrated in the richest and fanciest parts of the city, that is, where the largest number of beggars lay down their limbless bodies and their crying children. What a sight it is when a European foreigner walks down SanLiTun and a rotten Chinese lady clangs onto his arm and cries "money, money." That’s not the weird part yet. The really amazing part of this sight is when the European’s friend, a rich Chinese friend, says to the European in broken English, "don’t give her anything. Just keep walking. Some of these beggars live in houses that are bigger and nicer than the ones we live in." The European of course is busy thinking of how soon he can go home so he can throw his shirt into the washing machine, of course without any other clothes lest it pollutes other clothes with the invisible scum that the beggar must have smothered his shirt with. That’s the level of "rich" that his rich Chinese friend still did not reach – the idea of turning on the washing machine on full-load to rinse just one shirt for two hours is still too crazy for a rich Chinese person.

This is the civilization that the corporate premises want to spread under the guise of "Western" culture. Just because this civilization started in the West does not mean that ordinary Western people collectively decided to have lunch breaks that are long enough for a BigMac. The West is only special in that it was the first victim of corporate civilization. As for the third world, they are catching up pretty fast, and this is done through advertisement. Corporations civilize the world through advertising their "necessary" products through the airwaves, billboards, buses, clothes, and wherever else they can shove their logos and slogans into. The commercials on TV target the rich audiences, because they are the ones who can afford (or don’t mind) paying for the useless crap the corporations sell. It is also the easiest way for the rich to distinguish themselves from the rest, by getting the stuff that poor people cannot get. And as for the poorer classes, those commercials give them a reason to strive for becoming one of the rich. And before they know it, the entire country’s civilization shifts from a culture of humanity, socializing, helping one another; into a culture of those who have the stuff shown on TV, and those who want to have that stuff. An average-income person sees a commercial for the latest ipod device on television, then one day he’s on the subway train and finds a passenger using that same ipod advertised about a few days ago. The average-income person’s objective for the day then becomes the legal attainment of that same ipod, and what easier way to do that than working a few more hours of overtime at the very company that advertises these products on the television?

In the West, people no longer want to help others or lend money to others, because they themselves barely have enough to buy all the shit that they see on TV. There is so much shit to buy, and the money is never enough to buy all that shit, because the shit on TV is endless, and income isn’t. Yes, the European foreigner and his Chinese friend could have dropped one yuan into the hands of that dirty old beggar. But then again, what if they end up going into a jewelery store and find a beautiful must-have necklace, and they are one yuan short? That’s a risk a prudent and civilized person would not take.

I find it ironic that the richer a city is, the more beggars it has. When will people accept the fact that money is like a blanket; that if one person pulls a little more of that blanket than he "needs", someone else at the other end of the bed will shiver? How long will people continue to believe the lie fed to us by this liberal civilization that everybody can get richer simultaneously, or that the reason why some people become poor is their fault; that when someone tugs onto the blanket, the guy at the other end of the bed should grab the blanket and tug back harder (work harder)? And if they don’t tug back hard enough to stay under the blanket then they are weak and stupid and unworthy of the "privilage" of being covered. We moved from a society that cares for one another and give more of the blanket to those who feel colder, to a society where everyone is tugging onto the blanket as hard as they can and the stronger gets to keep a larger share of the blanket, and we call that "high standards of living."

On every street in Beijing and all over China, every other shop is an internet cafe, open 24/7, each one filled with hundreds of computers and hundreds of jobless college graduates. They are over-qualified, and can’t find jobs, so they spend hours every day on the net, chatting, setting up picture albums, and playing video games. Completely oblivious to the system that is fucking them every day of their lives. They pass by the rich European and his rich Chinese friend down the street, completely unaware that they passed by two of the 1% of the earth’s population that is causing their misery, and throwing them into their dream worlds online to make them forget how they are on debt and struggle to find one or two yuan so they can afford a tightly-packed bus ride on the way back to their slums they call home. In the meanwhile, they try to cope with the latest fashions and cool products, hoping that they would look "civilized" enough in the eyes of the blue-eyed invader and his Chinese associate, perhaps they will be picked to replace another Chinese youngster who might have complained a little bit too much about being forced to work 16 hours of overtime to meet the corporate project deadline. 

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