Wednesday 5 October 2011

A Tale of Two Cities

True, poverty often dwells in hidden alleys close to the palaces of the rich; but, in general, a separate territory has been assigned to it, where, removed from the sight of the happier classes, it may struggle along as it can. These slums are pretty equally arranged…the worst houses in the worst quarters of the town…The streets are generally unpaved, rough, dirty, filled with vegetable and animal refuse, without sewers or gutters, but supplied with foul, stagnant pools instead. Moreover, ventilation is impeded by the bad, confused method of building of the whole quarter, and since many human beings here live crowded into a small space, the atmosphere that prevails in these…quarters may readily be imagined.

Where is this do you think? Is it some third world city, perhaps? I’ll tell you in just a moment, but first let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of another city, in another place, in another time. The narrative goes like this;

The woman…crouches in the acrid fumes…tending the stock in her shop; the mangled remains of a wooden kitchen unit, broken microwave ovens, lengths of fire house and a meat slicer without a blade. To her right is one of…the largest dumps, spilling from its gates in a cascade of plastic bags. It stinks and is swarming with flies. To her left, written in huge letters, is the market’s slogan: a motto supposedly designed to give meaning to a life lived off rubbish…”If you don’t work hard today, tomorrow you will be working harder to find a new job!” It is unclear how she and her husband could work any harder. His day is spent trawling the city for the detritus of urban life. Hers is spent putting it into a state that might earn a few pennies…The woman, too nervous to give her name, describes life as “very difficult and without any feeling of security.” What little she and her family have could be bulldozed at any moment.

Yes, it’s two worlds, two times, two systems. It’s a tale of two cities; the first is London, described by Friedrich Engels in The Condition of the Working Class in England. It’s a description of a city during the high noon of laissez-faire capitalism. It’s the bleak age of the bourgeoisie, as someone once described it, the time of Ebenezer Scrooge before the haunting. It’s a past time.

The second is the present time, not in the heart of a heartless capitalist state. No, it’s the condition of the working class in a worker’s state; it’s the condition of the working class in a communist state. This city is not London or Manchester; it’s Beijing.

The London of the 1840s had its chroniclers, not just political radicals like Friedrich Engels but moral radicals like Charles Dickens, who appealed to the conscience of his middle-class readers in such works as Oliver Twist, Hard Times and A Christmas Carol. Those who attempt a chronicle of Beijing in the second decade of the twenty-first century face dangers that past reformers never did. A Chinese Dickens, or a Chinese Engels, for that matter, would almost certainly end up in one of Beijing’s ‘black jails’, the secret prisons where critics of the system can be held for indefinite periods without trial or legal representation of any kind.

It was in one of these places that Ai Weiwei, the brilliantly unconventional artist who has become the conscience of the nation, ended up earlier this year, held for some eighty days, his family not even being told of his whereabouts. Nothing chastened, he has since written a kind of Tale of Two Cities, or a tale of two Beijings, the city of the obscenely rich and the city of the wretchedly poor, in a country where several hundred households are worth more than $100million, while 100 million have to manage on $100 a year.

Like Dickens he has drawn attention to the underbelly of the capital, the other city, a city choked by filth and pollution, a constant nightmare, as he put it, of violence, numbing abusiveness and fear. This is the city of the migrants, people little better than slaves, people without any kind of civic rights, people who can be removed on a whim, constantly at risk from the arbitrary violence of the authorities.

China, in its present state of social, political and economic development, is one of history’s oddest paradoxes. Not only does it have an economy based upon forms of rapacious capitalism that might even have shocked Engels and Dickens, but the abuses are also held in place by Communist oligarchy that allows no room for dissent, for any form of social conscience or reforming impulse, an oligarchy that exists for no other purpose than to perpetuate its own monopoly of power. Thus is the reality of modern China in this anniversary year, the anniversary of the revolution of 1911, which saw the fall of the last imperial dynasty.

There is anger in the country over various social abuses, anger which finds some outlet in social media sites, anger which deepens the paranoia of the authorities, ever fearful that individual fires may turn into a general conflagration, fearful that the Arab disease might be contagious.

But setting to one side the complaints given air on micro-blogging sites like Sina Weibo, most Chinese would seem to be largely indifferent to the plight of the migrant subclass. Given the appalling misery inflicted on the country in the time of Mao Zedong, people are content with new forms of relative prosperity, prosperity and a quiet life. Put it another way, there is no audience for Engels, for Dickens or for Al Weiwei. Reform, if it comes at all, is a long way in the future, or lost in the past.


  1. This is so insightful. I love the analogy and the way you hook the reader by immersing them first in the sights, sounds, and emotions of the protagonist before revealing the shocking truth. This isn't the side of China that we normally read about, and I'm glad to have read this.

  2. Nada, thank you and a big warm welcome to my world. :-)

  3. I'm traveling, Ana, so my comments must be brief.

    The difference between the two cities and their times is that in London in the 1840s the grim circumstances of the underclass were the result of temporary dislocation and rapid change . . . for the better. But in the Chinese cities of today, the maintenance of an underclass is a deliberate expression of government policy favouring buildings and infrastructure over people. The regime just does not recognize that human capital is infinitely more valuable than bricks and mortar. But this is an inescapable component of tyranny.

  4. Calvin, like Holly Golightly? :-) I take it you are on vacation?

    Yes, you are absolutely right about that, and as the nineteenth century progressed there were substantial improvements in the condition of the working classes. It looks as if the Chinese sub-class are a permanent feature of the system, like slaves or serfs.

  5. Very interesting comparison Ana! And yes, the China today's situation is millions times worse than Dickens' time! I like what Calvin said about "human capital". I bet it is not that government doesn't know about it's value, but they prefer put money on buildings/technique and let education stay poor so they could continue to exploit the majority.

  6. Thanks, Yunyi. China fascinates me, its history, its culture and its politics fascinate me.