Migrant worker’s tale of inequality grips China, then is erased

He didn’t go to any of these places for fun. He was often
there in the wee hours when they were deserted, to unload concrete and sand
from trucks that weren’t allowed in the city until after midnight. He would be
gone before day broke.

The migrant worker, surnamed “Yue,” toiled in obscurity
until he tested positive for COVID-19 and authorities released the extensive
details of his movements. After that, he became known as the hardest working
person in China.

He was a symbol of the inequalities that are invisible to
most middle-class Chinese people, the migrant workers who sweep the streets,
pick up the trash and keep big metropolises gleaming. He was also an
inconvenient truth to a government that prefers celebrating its success in
eradicating extreme poverty, rather than acknowledging the large part of the
population still struggling for a better life.

Many social media users contrasted his itineraries with that
of another COVID-19 case in Beijing, a young employee at a big state-owned
bank. In the first 10 days of the year, she visited four shopping malls, made a
purchase at a French luxury store, saw a talk show and went skiing.

The two have become the faces of the haves and the have-nots
who live in the same cities but exist in parallel universes.

Some people compared Yue to characters in movies like “The
Matrix” and “Parasite” who operate between different realities and social
economic classes.

“We live in broad daylight; he in the dead of night,” Bambi
Lin, a Beijing resident, wrote on his timeline on the social media platform
WeChat. “We live above the ground; he under the ground.”

China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, declared in February 2021
that the country had won “a complete victory” in its fight against extreme
poverty, calling it a “miracle” that would “go down in history.”

In a nearly 9,000-word speech, Xi listed many of the
government’s achievements, with many numbers, in reducing poverty. Left out was
any mention of how many Chinese were still living in poverty and how China
calculated the poverty line.

Beijing doesn’t like the public to talk about poverty or the
country’s drastically inadequate social safety net. Gut-wrenching stories about
the poor are often recast with a positive state media spin or are censored

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Yue upended the government’s narrative. The Chinese internet
was gripped by his work schedule and the back story that led him to a tough
life in the country’s capital — a missing son, a bedridden father and
indifferent local authorities.

“Many people weren’t born to be unfortunate,” wrote
@jiayoumobao on the social media platform Weibo. “If anybody was willing to
give him a hand, he might not have to endure all those hardships. But nobody,
none, has extended him a single finger.”

Online users questioned the government’s claim of
eradicating poverty and its use of taxpayers’ money. Instead of building a
world-class surveillance system that monitors every move of its people, some
said, the government could have spent the money on building a social safety net
that catches its poor when they’re falling.

China is among the most unequal in the world. It has more
billionaires than the United States, India and Germany combined. The top 10%
there controls 68% of the country’s wealth, compared with about 6% by the
bottom 50%, according to the World Bank.

A large portion of the 1.4 billion Chinese remain poor.
About 600 million people, or 40% of the country’s population, live on about
$150 a month or less.

As does Yue’s family.

Born in 1978 in the central province of Henan, Yue left his
village to seek a better life in the city. He and his family settled down in
Weihai, a coastal city in eastern Shandong province, and he became a fisherman.

Yue and his wife had a happy family. Their first son was
born in 2000. Ten years later, they had a second son, paying about $1,500 for
breaking the one-child policy.

“As peasants, we didn’t earn much,” his wife, Li Suying,
said. “But we were doing fine because we were frugal.” She posted an online
photo album on her WeChat timeline in 2016 that was titled “A loving family.”
She does many low-paid seafood-related odd jobs while taking care of the

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Then, their elder son, then 19, went missing in August 2020.
Yue and Li went to the local police station and begged the officers for help
finding him by locating his cellphone and checking surveillance video footage.

Police ignored their plea and berated them when they refused
to give up, according to both Li and Yue’s interviews with Chinese media. One
officer told Li to “shut up” and “get lost,” she said. They ignored her when
she cried for days outside the police station.

“It wasn’t like I lost something that I could give up,” she
said. “He’s my son.”

Yue set out looking for their son on his own. He went to
many cities, including Beijing, where their son once worked at a restaurant. He
did whatever odd jobs he could find along the way.

The family’s financial situation deteriorated, as did their
mood. They borrowed thousands of dollars from relatives last year. Li said she
was too traumatised and enraged to fall asleep. Yue’s hair went gray.

After the couple petitioned authorities in the provincial
and national capitals, Li said, local police told them last summer that the
body of an unidentified young man was their son’s.

They refused to accept it because the police wouldn’t show
them the results of DNA tests. Neither could the police produce anything that
used to belong to their son. “His ID card, cellphone, clothes or bag,” she
said. “Nothing.”

Yue went back to Beijing last November to look for his son.
Mostly he found work carrying construction materials.

A bag of concrete is 66 pounds. A bag of sand is 110 pounds.
“Carrying one bag to the ground floor is 16 cents,” he told the official China
News Weekly magazine. “Carrying to the third floor times three. The fourth
floor times four.”

He made more than $1,500 in more than 40 days, renting a
room of about 100 square feet for about $100 a month in one of the city’s
biggest slums.

“I’ve been working as hard as I can to get our son back,”
Yue told the magazine. “I’ll find him even if I have to lose my life.”

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Like many people in rural China, the couple provided for
Yue’s parents. His father is bedridden and his mother broke her arm last
winter. Each month, he gives his parents about $315, which they spend on
medications for heart problems and high blood pressure.

“He worked, petitioned and looked for our son,” Li said.
“Then he got COVID.”

Yue couldn’t be reached, and Li declined to provide his full

Before Yue, other people in extreme poverty captivated the
nation’s attention. There was the “ice boy” who showed up at school one winter
morning with frost covering his hair, eyebrows and eyelashes after a trek of
more than an hour. There was the college student who weighed less than 50
pounds and stood at 4 feet, 5 inches tall from malnutrition; she later died.

Their stories touched off an outpouring of sympathy and
donations, but the attention faded as the public had few outlets to push for
policy change, like electing officials who represented their views.

With Yue, even the public’s soul-searching was cut short
after the online discussions raised too many uncomfortable questions for

The widely circulated interview that the official China News
Weekly magazine conducted with him was censored on WeChat for “violating
operating rules” of the platform. Hashtags such as
#thehardestworkingchineseincovidtracing# were censored on Weibo “according to
the relevant laws, regulations and policies.”

In a statement Jan 21, the local police office said it had
done everything it could to help find their son and the body’s DNA tests
matched theirs. Authorities said that the couple refused to accept the
conclusion but the police, along with the local government and the Communist
Party branch, would take good care of them.

Several cars had been parked outside their rental bungalow
for days, Li said. They followed her when she went out to pick up delivery
parcels or shop for groceries. Journalists were stopped from visiting her.

“If they are being truthful, why are they so afraid of
journalists visiting me?” Li said.

© 2022 The New York Times Company

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