Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Migrant workers, east and west

There is an excellent article in this month's issue of Mother Jones by Charles Bowden on the passage of illegal immigrants into the United States--the best I've read, but then I'm no expert on the topic (unfortunately, you'll have to buy the magazine at new stands, as it's not available online).

Bowden captures the sheer scale of the immigration and its toll on immigrants through a series of vignettes--huge dumps of clothes and backpacks at spots in the desert where migrants change into "American" attire given them by coyotes, the dangerous train-hopping of Central American migrants on their way to Mexico and then the U.S., the crime-ridden Mexican border towns that send dozens of trucks to the border daily, and the (strangely human and sympathetic in his account) ranks of Minutemen fanatics who wait at the border, binoculars and weapons in hand.

Reading the article I couldn't help but think back to the situation of China's migrant workers.

Of course, the issues are quite different: the plight of China's migrants is made all the more cruel by the fact that they are, after all Chinese citizens; the Mexican and Central American migrants face a hostility from ordinary citizens in the United States that dwarfs that faced by their Chinese counterparts (although police brutality is something they must endure in common); and the cultural tangles each group finds itself wrapped up in are, of course, incomparable.

Nonetheless, it seems like if there was ever a rights issue where Americans and Chinese could sit as equals without any talking-down or defensiveness or high-flying ideology on either side, the rights of migrant workers would be it.

Monday, August 28, 2006

On Chen Guangcheng

It seems that when local governments in China find themselves in a bind of their own making--through corruption, abuse of power, etc.-- they intentionally push things to the point of crisis, hoping that Beijing will privilige "stability" over the rule of law.

In Chen's case , the bulletproof jacket wearing-official Huang Jin'gao's case and the Taishi Village recall campaign , the central government gave some kind of nod early on--a People's Daily editorial, say--to grassroots rights activists. Then the village or township government, faced with investigations and sackings from Beijing and feeling that they had nothing to lose, escalated the local problem into a fullblown "incident."

When an "incident" rears its head, Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao tend to step back and allow the village despots, cops and hired thugs to straighten things up. They forgive the original official infraction that gave rise to the "incident", believing that pursuing justice will only encourage more instability. And they put off "rule of law" until another day.

Friday, August 25, 2006

New York neighborhoods

Once again I've been hit by how much (at least middle class) New York residents define themselves by "good" and "bad" neighborhoods and neighborhoods that have some "good parts" or are "getting better" and neighborhoods that are "changing" or "used to be nice" or "are gentrifying" or are "mostly black, some Dominicans" or "traditionally Puerto Rican but nice", etc., etc. More than any other city I've lived in, people here feel free to keep a running commentary going in the most open, frank terms on race and class and space.

NYC is refreshingly diverse ethnically and is the rare city where working people and Wall Street execs have at least equal claims on the its identity (what would New York be without Deli owners or cab drivers?). The city is filled with some of the most democratic spaces in America, where people of all backgrounds mix and mingle--Central Park, the subway system, etc.

Yet people seem all the more separate for that openness.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Development toward... ?

I just returned from a summer spent studying in Beijing. It was a wonderful experience, a chance to reconnect with a place and people I love.

However, I found that the city had changed a lot since the last time I spent any real time there (the winter and spring of 2001).

Not only are Beijing's historic hutongs targets for destruction; so too are its dull, tile and cement apartment complexes of the 1980s and 1990s. Styles are eating styles almost as fast as new ones can be generated.

If Marx were alive, he would find a new applicability for his oft-quoted description of changing productive relations: "All fixed, fast-frozen relationships . . . are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air."

Beijing is in a hubbub that is unlikely to subside until after 2008, if then.

Development in terms of better sewage systems, more orderly roads, bigger hospitals, and, well, architecture that is pleasing to the eye is a good thing. But all this bustle, all these tons of earth moved and sheets of glass hung, all the labor of all Beijing's migrant workers, is directed at one group: the upper middle class and the very, very rich. Small shop owners, workers and taxi drivers are being pushed out beyond the outer ring roads of the city; the bright lights and trendily exposed steel girders rising up everywhere are not for them.

Meanwhile, as the Western and Chinese media and internet forums have noted, places with stories and unique forms of community life are disappearing.

Nor, generally, is some new "look" forming, some distinctively "Beijing" way of living it large. The West, especially the United States of shopping malls and strip malls appears to be the model (though some areas of Beijing, it should be noted, have been more adventurous--the eerily beautiful SOHO development near Dawanglu, for example). Many people I spoke to put things in terms of reaching some plateau, of being--some day--just like New York City (another city that is destroying much of its working class life in favor of yuppie glitz).

Looking at the old propaganda posters from the 1960s and 1970s for sale to tourists, I was reminded how China once viewed itself as a part of another trajectory---that of the "Third World" and its struggles for liberation. Where photographs of European or American business people now look down from billboards advertising luxury condominiums, silkscreened, flatly colored and boldly outlined, muscular Africans, Middle Easterners and Asians once joined arms to smash the United States and Soviet Union or to wave the Chairman's collected writings.

It is perhaps unwise to romanticize Maoist anti-imperialism, or even the calm, heartfelt solidarity of Zhou Enlai and the expressions of brotherhood shown at the Bandung Conference. In addition to the cruelty of some the causes China backed in those days---Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge, for one---many of the country's foreign policy flourishes were motivated more by old-school realpolitik than high ideals and, when push came to shove, naked interests won out over principle.

Nonetheless, when I see rapidly developing Brazil, India and China each pursuing their own version of the "American Dream" (and America itself driving the dream off a cliff) I worry that a chance at something greater has been lost.