Old farmer in Kaiping, Guangdong, May 2013. In an effort to reduce the gap between urban and rural areas and to boost consumption, China’s State Council has announced plans to create a unified pension system for residents in both urban and rural areas1. The Central Government will cover pension payouts fully in rural areas, whereas it will only pay half the pensions in the developed eastern regions. Since 2009, the Central Government ensures a monthly payment of 55 Yuan to pensioners, regardless of where they live. But this amount proves to be completely insufficient. Affluent provinces in the east have increased such payments, sometimes five-fold. After unification, the amount paid by the Central Government in western regions will also be increased. If fully implemented, this would be a major step towards dissolving the radical line that separates rural and urban China.
A former factory worker and amateur Peking opera performer, playing the role of the virtuous lady, or zhengdan (正旦), in Qianling park (黔灵公园), Guiyang. November 2013.
After the massive layoffs from State Owned Enterprises of the 1990s, millions of workers lost their job. Although for the most part they could stay in their homes (the factories were closed down but danwei lodgings were usually handed over to its occupants at a subsidized price), and were provided with a pension when they reached the threshold age, the speed of economic development and inflation has forced many to look for alternative ways to make money.
Former factory workers often compare their economic circumstances with those of farmers, and tend to consider them as marginally better off. After all, farmers did not get aid from the State in the form of pensions or the subsistence allowance. (Note: the situation in the countryside has improved now, as described in previous photo captions.) Nor they did benefit from the creation of a real estate market that allowed them to exploit the increased value of their properties either.
In the background, other comrades watch the performance waiting for their turn. In particular, a breeze of nostalgia is brought about by the lady dressed in a Red Guard uniform, who is about to start performing the role of a revolutionary soldier in one of the model operas engineered by Mao’s last wife Jiang Qing (江青) during the Cultural Revolution. Music comes from the speakers, played from a computer. During the performance, the singer carries a pannier where the audience can give some reward. It’s not rare to see young people and children among the audience. Appreciation for the traditional (and revolutionary) opera might not be fading away with modernity after all.
A 104 year-old woman playing pai gow (paijiu – 牌九) with her friends in Kaiping, Guangdong, May 2013. Living standards in the Chinese countryside are improving steadily. The elderly are granted pensions (yanglao baoxian − 养老保险), provided there are no children to take care of them (zinü fuyang – 子女抚养). The monthly allocation is meagre, between 80 to 90 yuan per month, depending on the age of the beneficiary. In the province of Guangdong many villagers have been able to benefit from the economic development by an urbanisation model that is unique in many respects. By converting collectives into property companies that develop industrial zones (and residential property), farmers are able to generate profits and receive dividends in return. These ladies enjoy now a placid life and may spend more than three hours a day chatting and playing this game.