China Brief

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How Beijing’s COVID-19 Outbreak Exposes Urban Poverty

Most middle-class Chinese rarely get a glimpse of the lives of the migrant workers who keep the city running.

Palmer-James-foreign-policy-columnist20
James Palmer
By , a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.
A migrant worker crosses a road after arriving on a long distance bus in Beijing on March 10, 2021.
A migrant worker crosses a road after arriving on a long distance bus in Beijing on March 10, 2021.
A migrant worker crosses a road after arriving on a long distance bus in Beijing on March 10, 2021. GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.

The highlights this week: Beijing’s omicron outbreak exposes the struggles of migrant workers, the central government makes a rare admission about a local cover-up during floods in Henan province, and why Russia isn’t really weighing the 2022 Winter Olympics in the Ukraine crisis.

If you would like to receive China Brief in your inbox every Wednesday, please sign up here.

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.

The highlights this week: Beijing’s omicron outbreak exposes the struggles of migrant workers, the central government makes a rare admission about a local cover-up during floods in Henan province, and why Russia isn’t really weighing the 2022 Winter Olympics in the Ukraine crisis.

If you would like to receive China Brief in your inbox every Wednesday, please sign up here.


Contact Tracing Reveals Struggles of Urban Poor

As authorities in Beijing track a small—and possibly contained—outbreak of the omicron variant, the Chinese public has become captivated by the visions of life in poverty that contact-tracing information has exposed. The case of migrant worker Yue Zongxian, 44, has captured particular attention in Chinese media. Yue tested positive for COVID-19 when attempting to return to his hometown, the fishing port of Weihai.

Yue’s story has been marked by tragedy but is, in many ways, typical of migrant life. He came to Beijing late last year searching for his son, missing since August 2020. Contact-tracing data showed that while in Beijing, Yue has worked multiple jobs for very low pay, such as hauling cement. “Generally [the pay for hauling] a bag of cement or sand is one yuan ($0.16) if you don’t go upstairs,” Yue told Chinese media. “If you go upstairs, there’s more money, such as 3 yuan ($0.48) for the third floor and 4 yuan ($0.64) for the fourth floor.”

Yue has already had more than 20 employers in Beijing; the gig work is unreliable. Most of his work comes in the middle of the night, when traffic restrictions are lifted and trucks can enter central Beijing. He typically sleeps four or five hours a day in a shack he rents for 700 yuan ($110) a month on the edge of the city. His income goes toward the search for his son and to support his ailing parents in Weihai, who do not receive welfare benefits.

The poverty revealed in Yue’s story appeared to shock many Beijing residents unaware of the lives of the migrant workers who sustain the city’s construction industry, delivery services, and other parts of daily life. China’s 286 million migrant workers have suffered more than most citizens during the pandemic, often stuck far from home and unable to access welfare thanks to the residence permit system, which restricts benefits to official residents of an area.

Although stories about poverty in China sometimes break through to middle-class consciousness, they rarely stick there. This phenomenon is hardly unique to China: The country’s official Gini index, which measures income inequality, is slightly lower than that of the United States, for example. Actual income inequality numbers are probably somewhat worse, as other estimates put the figure far higher.

However, there are particular reasons that poverty awareness is limited in China despite it having a large population of poor people. Outside of official propaganda about poverty relief that focuses on remote rural areas, depictions of poverty tend to be censored. There is also some contempt for the poor among the urban middle class, who worry allowing migrant workers to become formal residents will overwhelm their better-quality schools and hospitals that bigger cities enjoy. Beijing has repeatedly attempted to drive out migrants through demolition campaigns.

The lives of the poor are also more likely to intersect with other forms of oppression that Chinese media has a difficult time covering, such as police indifference and brutality. The poor make up most of the hundreds of thousands of petitioners who try to reach Beijing each year to get the central authorities to fix local injustices. In Yue’s case, local police in Weihai now claim they identified his son’s body through DNA testing of a likely suicide, but the family has refused to accept it was him. (Some Chinese police have a record of lying about autopsies.)


What We’re Following

Henan flood deaths confirmed. In a rare move, China’s central government has confirmed that local authorities covered up many deaths during record floods in Zhengzhou, Henan province, last year. Local officials originally said the death toll was 99, then revised it to nearly 300 under pressure. This week, central government authorities said the true total is closer to 400 deaths. Eight officials have been arrested.

In China, local officials concealing deaths from natural disasters is routine—but it is rarely admitted. Tragedies can ruin political careers, and so the numbers are often kept low enough to avoid high-level attention. Sometimes, a disaster may highlight corruption, such as the sub-standard school buildings that collapsed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, killing 5,000 children.

But central and local governments also struggle to reach accurate numbers for issues such as economic growth and population figures. It’s rare to highlight the issue so publicly. In the case of the flood death toll, behind-the-scenes political fights may be involved. It may also be an attempt to counter allegations about China’s lack of transparency around COVID-19 or a move to intimidate local officials into greater compliance during a politically tough year for leadership.

China and Ukraine. Some foreign officials, including U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman have suggested that Russia is delaying potential action in Ukraine until after the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics at the request of the Chinese. But Beijing is unlikely to be any more than a very minor factor in Moscow’s timing. The informal alliance between Russia and China resembles the relationship between two unscrupulous politicians in the same party: They will provide ideological cover for each other if it comes without meaningful costs.

If Russian President Vladimir Putin thought a Feb. 2 invasion would benefit Moscow, he wouldn’t blink. Meanwhile, China is backing Russia on Ukraine both out of anti-Western feelings and its attitude that large states should be able to bully their smaller neighbors. As Jessica Brandt of the Brookings Institution outlined, Beijing’s support amounts to diplomatic trolling and some state propaganda—and, of course, helping to block any United Nations action if Moscow attacks.

Departure for U.S. diplomats? A minor diplomatic spat has erupted after the U.S. Embassy in Beijing issued “authorized departure” for its staff—a move that essentially allows all but the most essential diplomats to leave their posts if they choose. The policy is purely voluntary. Chinese state media has portrayed it as an attempt to smear China’s COVID-19 containment measures.

Current and former U.S. staff in Beijing said the move is an attempt to avoid more serious diplomatic problems. China has made clear that quarantine controls, including compulsory detention, can apply to diplomatic personnel, which has raised concerns among some staffers about diplomatic immunity. Allowing authorized departure lets those with the greatest concerns leave, avoiding further confrontation over the issue.


Tech and Business

AI controversy. The founder of Clearview AI, a controversial U.S. start-up that uses artificial intelligence to match photos to camera images, has issued an open letter saying the firm shouldn’t be criticized because “there will be no civil liberties and no America if China and Russia are the only countries with facial recognition technology.”

“Both China and Russia have implemented real-time surveillance to target minority populations,” the letter said. “We should not leave it to those countries to show the way for the world.”

These are interesting claims. It’s true that China has targeted ethnic minorities, especially Uyghurs, with facial recognition technology and has applied technology from surveillance firms, such as Hikvision, to mass imprisonment in Xinjiang. But the problems with such technology won’t be solved by putting it in the hands of U.S. police. The combination of artificial intelligence and law enforcement has already produced racist incidents, and the American Civil Liberties Union has warned the problem will worsen.

Clearview AI’s letter does reflect a shift in the tech world, which once flocked to the Chinese market. Firms with questionable human rights records of their own have used China’s supposed technological edge as a boogeyman. The U.S. Defense Department has relied on a similar argument when firms raise ethical objections to working with the U.S. military.

Labeling foreign actors. The Chinese government has told local production companies to start including the nationality of non-Chinese actors in television and film credits—a move to intimidate celebrities holding foreign passports. Many actors, singers, and other stars come from the global Chinese diaspora, and they face pressure to assume Chinese nationality. When singer Kris Wu was accused of sexual assault, his accuser highlighted his Canadian citizenship to get more attention from the authorities. Wu now faces rape charges, unlike many accused in China.

For a sense of this growing xenophobia, especially against foreigners of Chinese descent, read NPR reporter Emily Feng’s account of covering a fun story only to become the target of an online hate campaign.

James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer

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