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With the rich come the poor

By Pushpa Adhikari, Inter Press Service, Asia Times, 26 May 1999

BEIJING - In the last decade, market reforms have transformed China from a poor welfare state to a major economic power.

But the changes have also cracked the country's legendary iron rice bowl, so while more and more Chinese are able to reap the benefits of market reforms, many are also realizing it is easier to fall into poverty.

Where once cadres went to work in olive drab, cities across China are now bustling with people in their approximations of the latest fashion - and beggars in clothes that look like they barely survived the Cultural Revolution.

There are no official statistics on how many beggars there are today, even just in Beijing.

An official from the Beijing municipality security bureau, however, estimates that the number of beggars in the capital could exceed 400 in the downtown area alone. But many beggars themselves say that in Beijing they number more than 1,000, including children.

Others think the real figures are much higher. Officials and sociologists add that as more state firms lay off workers in the government's economic reform drive, cities across the country may see even more beggars.

In most cases, though, they say the beggars came from poor and backward provinces to the city initially to look for work. But they soon ran out of money and luck, and turned to begging.

Gao Yuegin, a research fellow from the Academy of Social Sciences, says Beijing now has almost 3 million migrants from different parts of the country who do not hold Beijing residential cards.

Almost two-thirds of this number have work, he says, but the rest do not. Gao believes many get by living with relatives, but he points out that others probably end up alone and on the streets.

According to the State Statistical Bureau, the problem of the floating population began surfacing in the mid-1980s, when the great migration from the rural areas to the cities started as China's economic boom took off.

Although at first reluctant to do so, many of these desperate rural mirgrants realized that they were bound to make more money on the streets than if they took on regular jobs.

Some beggars here claim that they can make as much as 2,000 yuan (about $240) a month, higher than the average government worker's salary.

One example of China's begging class is Zhang Li. His father fought for the Communist Party, and so when he came of age, he joined the army, too. After three years, he went to work as an accountant for a state-owned factory, married and had children.

It was a rather simple existence, but for Zhang, life in China was good.

Then he lost his legs in a bus accident, and could no longer work. Zhang couldn't imagine that the government would abandon him.

Today, at 50, Zhang is a professional - that is how many beggars like Zhang refer to themselves.

Zhang himself says he was lured into begging by the prospects of making as much as $36 a month, which was more than what he had made as a state factory accountant.

A native of the poverty-stricken central province of Henan, Zhang came to Beijing 13 years ago. By then, he had already lost his family, who left when he could no longer support them.

Zhang at first tried selling small goods and maps, but he was often caught in police round-ups of those selling merchandise without licenses.

He says he was hesitant to resort to begging, which was suggested to him by an acquaintance already in the profession. Zhang balked: Our home was a revolutionary home. My grandfather sacrificed for the revolution, too. So how could I beg?

When he was told of how much he could make, however, Zhang decided to put his pride aside. An acquaintance took him in as an apprentice in exchange for half of what he would get in his first month.

Zhang says his teacher is still at it, and always has students who want to learn how to become a successful beggar.

Beggars in Beijing say they have institutionalized their line of work. They have seniors, area chiefs and teachers in their ranks.

From time to time, someone comes around to check on how everyone is doing. But the beggars say the monitoring is often limited to the beginners, who more often than not are children.

The beggars say their customers are usually ordinary Chinese, because foreigners do not seem to believe that China has beggars. They also have designated times to do their business in order to avoid running into the police, who patrol city streets at set times and do not look kindly upon begging.

The beggars say they have had to resort to this work because the government does not do enough for them.

There has been an urban welfare programme in place since 1994, and this provides subsistence payments to the poor and disabled residents of cities. But the beggars say the money doled out by the state is too little to live on.

The link between the increase in rural-to-urban migration and the rise in begging has not escaped the attention of the government.

Yet as Gao notes, The government has been formulating laws to stop migration to the cities, but the migrants do not care much about the law because it is not what they are looking for. They need some work and to earn their living.

Economist Wang Quoqing of the People's University echoes Gao's concern. The government should create opportunities in the rural areas and implement a sound social security system so the number of migrants could be reduced, if not stopped, he says.

But most of the time, as Wang himself observes, such policies, even if they are formulated, will remain on paper only and never get implemented.