China Goes Home

Rob Schmitz Jan 20, 2011

There’s a lot to think about when you’re standing in line for two days. And, by and large, you’re more willing to talk to a foreign reporter about what you’ve been thinking. The ‘man on the street’ interview, the old standby for a public radio journalist, is a tricky proposition in China. Most people are suspicious of journalists–not to mention foreign journalists–and, for many, microphones conjure up the image of being interrogated. But the poor blokes in the line outside the Shanghai Railway Station were so bored out of their skulls they were actually clamoring to talk to me. What I found was a good barometer of where China is economically.

SLIDESHOW: Going Home – Chinese New Year

Most migrants I spoke to complained about the rising price of food, rent, train tickets, everything. Inflation is at 5% (Last month food prices went up 10%), and it shows no sign of slowing down. This will inevitably force many migrants back to their home provinces, where they may be surprised at some of the opportunities that now await them. Much of the stimulus money China spent in the last two years has focused on building infrastructure in the country’s poorer provinces. One man from Chengdu, located in the Southwest province of Sichuan, told me he’d probably return home soon, because he could find a job in Chengdu that paid close to what he makes in Shanghai. The bonus about living in Chengdu is that he’s already got a house, household goods are cheaper there, and, most importantly, he’ll see his family every day as opposed to once a year. The other bonus, of course, is that he won’t have to wait in line for a day to get a train ticket home. One thing that struck me about the ticket-buying process in Shanghai: There were hundreds of police and PLA soldiers keeping an eye on everyone to make sure they behaved. A police presence is usually not an ideal environment for a foreign radio journalist to pull out a microphone. I did so, clenching my teeth and waiting for one of them to snatch it from me (past experience). Instead, all I got were smiles and looks of indifference. They obviously were proud to show-off how orderly the process was to the foreign press. At one point during an interview, an officer arrested a guy who was tip-toeing to the front of the line, cutting in front of everyone. Where were these guys the other day when someone butted in front of me at the supermarket?

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