Beijing, Jan. 24: Sitting disconsolately under the marble pillars of Beijing East Station, Zhang Xian Yuan is part of the biggest migration in history, the shift of 100 million peasants to China’s eastern cities.
Without perhaps realising, he is also posing an increasingly common question: after 50 years, has the Communist Revolution left it too late finally to remember its children'
For Zhang, 57, is a supposed beneficiary of an extraordinary plea issued yesterday by the Chinese government, one of the most powerful state machines on Earth: please, bosses, pay your staff their wages.
The authorities, fearing disorder from its huge, dissatisfied working class, have suddenly woken up to conditions experienced by the semi-legal and easily exploited underclass typified by Zhang.
The number of workers living with migrants’ permits in the tiger economy zones of the east officially rose this year to 94 million. Millions more are thought to escape the periodic roundings-up of those with no permits at all.
Surveys have found that in some cases a third are still owed money a week before Lunar New Year, when most get their year’s pay in a lump sum. Even state media have begun to report their complaints.
The result has been repeated protests, the sort of discontent the regime finds especially unpalatable.
One man publicly set fire to himself and others threaten to leap off the high-rise buildings they are erecting.
Normal safety warnings issued by transport officials to the crush travelling for the New Year have been supplemented by another: to watch out for suicides by those ashamed of going home without their promised cash.
In Beijing, where many migrants are employed on swish residential and business developments that for the elite symbolise their ambition to be an economic superpower, one protest hit a nerve.
A mob of unpaid builders barricaded a designated foreigners’ compound where they believed their Hong Kong employer to live, leaving Western diplomats and businessmen fuming in their company cars outside.
Few of China’s migrant workers have contracts, and all earn pitiful sums by Western standards. Between £300 and £800 a year is the norm, but that is twice what they would make at home.
Zhang is typical, though in fact luckier than many. He had connections and though at first fobbed off with 1,000 yuan, instead of the 8,000 (£600) he was owed at his construction site, he eventually argued his way to 4,000 (£300).
That was for just under a year of 14-hour working days, seven days a week.