Posts Tagged Xi Jinping

In China, millions make themselves at home in caves –

In China, millions make themselves at home in caves

Some are basic, others beautiful, with high ceilings and nice yards. ‘Life is easy and comfortable here,’ one cave dweller says.


Cave dwellers in China

Ma Liangshui, 76, has lived in caves around Yanan his entire life. (Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times / February 1, 2012)

March 18, 2012

Reporting from Yanan, China— 

Like many peasants from the outskirts of Yanan, China, Ren Shouhua was born in a cave and lived there until he got a job in the city and moved into a concrete-block house.

His progression made sense as he strove to improve his life. But there’s a twist: The 46-year-old Ren plans to move back to a cave when he retires.

“It’s cool in the summer and warm in the winter. It’s quiet and safe,” said Ren, a ruddy-faced man with salt-and-pepper hair who moved to the Shaanxi provincial capital, Xian, in his 20s. “When I get old, I’d like to go back to my roots.”

More than 30 million Chinese people live in caves, many of them in Shaanxi province where the Loess plateau, with its distinctive cliffs of yellow, porous soil, makes digging easy and cave dwelling a reasonable option.

Each of the province’s caves, yaodong, in Chinese, typically has a long vaulted room dug into the side of a mountain with a semicircular entrance covered with rice paper or colorful quilts. People hang decorations on the walls, often a portrait of Mao Tse-tung or a photograph of a movie star torn out of a glossy magazine.

The better caves protrude from the mountain and are reinforced with brick masonry. Some are connected laterally so a family can have several chambers. Electricity and even running water can be brought in.

“Most aren’t so fancy, but I’ve seen some really beautiful caves: high ceilings and spacious with a nice yard out front where you can exercise and sit in the sun,” said Ren, who works as a driver and is the son of a wheat and millet farmer.

The caves have an important role in modern Chinese history. The Long March, the famous retreat of the Communist Partyin the 1930s, ended near Yanan, where Mao took refuge in caves. In “Red Star Over China,” writer Edgar Snow described a Red Army university that “was probably the world’s only seat of ‘higher learning’ whose classrooms were bombproof caves, with chairs and desks of stone and brick, and blackboards and walls of limestone and clay.”

Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, who is expected to succeed Hu Jintao next year as president, lived for seven years in a cave when he was exiled to Shaanxi province during the Cultural Revolution.

“The cave topology is one of the earliest human architectural forms; there are caves in France, in Spain, people still living in caves in India,” said David Wang, an architecture professor at Washington State University in Spokane who has written widely on the subject. “What is unique to China is the ongoing history it has had over two millenniums.”

In recent years, architects have been reappraising the cave in environmental terms, and they like what they see.

“It is energy efficient. The farmers can save their arable land for planting if they build their houses in the slope. It doesn’t take much money or skill to build,” said Liu Jiaping, director of the Green Architecture Research Center in Xian and perhaps the leading expert on cave living. “Then again, it doesn’t suit modern complicated lifestyles very well. People want to have a fridge, washing machine, television.”

Liu helped design and develop a modernized version of traditional cave dwellings that in 2006 was a finalist for a World Habitat Award, sponsored by a British foundation dedicated to sustainable housing. The updated cave dwellings are built against the cliff in two levels, with openings over the archways for light and ventilation. Each family has four chambers, two on each level.

“It’s like living in a villa. Caves in our villages are as comfortable as posh apartments in the city,” said Cheng Wei, 43, a Communist Party official who lives in one of the cave houses in Zaoyuan village on the outskirts of Yanan. “A lot of people come here looking to rent our caves, but nobody wants to move out.”

The thriving market around Yanan means a cave with three rooms and a bathroom (a total of 750 square feet) can be advertised for sale at $46,000. A simple one-room cave without plumbing rents for $30 a month, with some people relying on outhouses or potties that they empty outside.

Many caves, however, are not for sale or rent because they are handed down from one generation to another, though for just how many generations, people often can’t say.

Ma Liangshui, 76, lives in a one-room cave on a main road south of Yanan. It is nothing fancy, but there is electricity — a bare bulb dangling from the ceiling. He sleeps on a kang, a traditional bed that is basically an earthen ledge, with a fire underneath that is also used for cooking. His daughter-in-law has tacked up photographs of Fan Bingbing, a popular actress.

The cave faces west, which makes it easy to bask in the late afternoon sun by pulling aside the blue-and-white patchwork quilt that hangs next to drying red peppers in the arched entrance.

Ma said his son and daughter-in-law have moved to the city, but he doesn’t want to leave.

“Life is easy and comfortable here. I don’t need to climb stairs. I have everything I need,” he said. “I’ve lived all my life in caves, and I can’t imagine anything different.”

 In China, millions make themselves at home in caves –

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Chinese Labor, Cheap No More –


Chinese Labor, Cheap No More


Published: February 17, 2012



WHEN China’s vice president, Xi Jinping, visited the White House on Tuesday, President Obama renewed calls for China to play more fairly in the world economy. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. echoed those sentiments, telling Mr. Xi that the two countries could cooperate “only if the game is fair.”

But while China’s industrial subsidies, trade policies, undervalued currency and lack of enforcement for intellectual property rights all remain sticking points for the United States, there is at least one area in which the playing field seems to be slowly leveling: the cheap labor that has made China’s factories nearly unbeatable is not so cheap anymore.

China has experienced sporadic labor shortages, which in turn have driven up its once rock-bottom labor costs. This trend is particularly evident in the weeks following China’s Spring Festival, or New Year, when more than 100 million rural migrants return to the countryside to spend the year’s biggest holiday with family. Coaxing those same migrants back into the urban work force has proven increasingly difficult.

This year has been no exception. Although nearly two weeks have passed since the Lantern Festival that officially marks the end of the 15-day holiday, cities across China are still facing a serious labor shortfall. In order to lure new workers and retain the old, some companies give employees sizable bonuses just for coming back to work, while others offer cash for every new employee they bring along with them. And in many areas, wage increases ranging from 10 to 30 percent have become the norm.

Despite all this, cities like Beijing, Shenzhen and Guangzhou are still short hundreds of thousands of migrant workers. Shandong Province is missing a full third of its migrant work force, and Hubei Province reports a loss of more than 600,000 workers. Last week, the Chinese government released a report describing this year’s post-Spring Festival labor shortage as not only more pronounced than in years past, but also longer-lasting and wider in scope.

Numerous factors underlie China’s mounting labor woes. Until now the country has been able to achieve its stunning economic growth by shifting large numbers of farmers into nonagricultural jobs. Over the past several years economists have warned that China may be reaching the so-called Lewis Turning Point — the stage at which the rural surplus labor pool effectively runs dry and wages begin to rapidly increase.

At the same time, China’s population has been steadily aging, and by 2020 the nation will have more than 200 million people over age 60. Furthermore, rising living costs in urban China coupled with markedly improved conditions in rural areas are encouraging many would-be migrant workers to look for opportunities closer to home.

In addition to a shortage in the sheer number of available workers, China’s labor problems are further exacerbated by a shift in the quality and character of its work force. For the older generation, there is very little that a factory or foreman can dish out that seems too difficult to deal with, given that they witnessed, or grew up with parents who had witnessed, the nation’s rocky ride through the Communist Revolution, collectivization, the disastrous Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. These are the people who pioneered the model of migrant labor on which Chinese manufacturing has come to depend: long hours in substandard conditions, all for a fraction of what United States workers earn.

As illustrated by the recent headlines over working conditions at Foxconn, which makes components for Apple, there are plenty of migrant workers still living and working under that model. But by and large China’s younger generation is no longer willing to endure hardship without clear expectations that it is a temporary means to a more comfortable end.

According to the government report, a full 70 percent of rural migrants are now under 30. That means they are members of the so-called after-’80s generation — a euphemistic Chinese term to describe those who grew up during the nation’s economic revival and have thus never experienced real deprivation or acquired a taste for the chiku (“eating bitterness”) work ethic championed by previous generations.

In the past, China’s migrant workers were just thankful not to go hungry; today they are savvy and secure enough to start being choosy. Higher salaries, basic benefits, better working conditions and less physically taxing jobs are only the beginning of their demands, and for many factories, these are already too costly to be tenable.

For China, having spent the last three decades building the nation on the back of its cheap labor force without having to pay too much attention to its welfare, all this is uncharted territory. It is also a serious blow to the comparative advantage that has helped make its factories an international juggernaut.

It’s no wonder then that the day after meeting with Mr. Xi, President Obama showed up at a Master Lock plant in Milwaukee declaring that the time for manufacturing jobs to return to America had arrived. Not too long ago such a statement would have been nearly unthinkable, but now, thanks to China’s rising labor costs, it looks as if America might be back in the manufacturing game sooner than expected.

Michelle Dammon Loyalka, a journalist who lives in Beijing, is the author of “Eating Bitterness: Stories from the Front Lines of China’s Great Urban Migration.”

 Chinese Labor, Cheap No More –

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