Subterranean homesick blues

Updated: 2013-12-14 07:15

By Raymond Zhou (China Daily)

  Print Mail Large Medium  Small 分享按钮 0

Wang, 53, is just one of many who seek a better life in the capital city, maybe not a better life for himself but presumably one for his children who need his money - about 2,000 yuan ($330) a month - for schooling.

Obviously he is among the vast majority who cannot afford a basic living standard in the ever more expensive city. But he probably wouldn't be able to pull in the same income back home, or it would have made more sense for him to stay put rather than live like a semi-vagrant in a big city.

Subterranean homesick blues

This is a dilemma facing the whole nation: Shall we keep a minimum level of sanitation and safety in urban areas and effectively keep out those who cannot meet it financially? Or shall we tolerate large tracts of slums as a result of large inflows of newcomers who may or may not be able to succeed and assimilate in the city? You can argue either way depending on where you draw the line of basic human rights.

Had there been a poisonous leak in the compartments, a public outcry would surely have ensued. Remember the five boys who died in a garbage dumpster from an overdose of carbon monoxide when they tried to make a fire for heating? If no tragedy had occurred, would it have been right to leave them alone in the dumpster?

A social safety net should have caught the kids, who were supposed to be under adult supervision anyway. But for the millions like Wang, philanthropy is not the ultimate solution. Yes, Wang was offered jobs as a result of media exposure and donations poured in. But what about the many more who do not make into the news? Can they hope to attain some level of decency in living standards?

Should they be allowed to fight for a chance in the big city, or should they be encouraged to return home where at least basic accommodation can be guaranteed?

Essentially this phenomenon is the underbelly of urbanization, the seamy side of the glittering high-rises and shopping malls and the chic crowds strutting through them, the side we rarely see in advertising. Economically speaking, people like Wang live off the city slickers who need services like car washing, apartment cleaning, hair-dressing, massaging, dining and catering. Most of them do not live in underground utility compartments, but share overcrowded apartment units.