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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

John Ping: Driver


I was curious about whether Chinese people missed at all living in a democracy. So I asked John Ping, our driver, a rather tangential question. After all, I'm not sure if politics is at all a sensitive topic in China.

Me: Has there been any change in political system in China?
John: No, no... there has been no change and that is a very good thing, because when there is political revolution, life is not good.

John makes it his business to drive tourists out to the Great Wall of China, and other places in the outskirts. Much of what we wanted to visit was within reach by subway, and I quite enjoyed walking in the invigorating autumn cold. Plus, the subway costs 2 yuan flat no matter where you go. Getting to the Summer Palace costs three people 110 yuan but coming back to the hotel by subway costs 6 yuan for 3 people. And it is a very clean subway too compared to subways in London, Rome and Paris.

We hired John to get to 2 places: the Great Wall and Zhokoudian Village (where we viewed prehistoric caves and sabre-tooth tiger skeletons). We paid about 700 yuan for each 2-way trip. He charges 600 yuan, but we gave him a nice tip of 100 yuan for having been such a good host. You can find his contact details here.

Now, back to politics... frankly, most of the Chinese people don't care what political regime controls the country as long as they can make a decent living, and can move around safely. And the Chinese population is a generally happy one. Many have seen their standards of living and purchasing power increase over the past 2 decades. Many have been able to progress above the poverty line. People like John Ping (at 50 years of age) started life earning less than 100 yuan a month. Today, he owns a fleet of cars, employs freelance drivers and eats once in a while at expensive restaurants like Dadong. He dreams of expanding his business. His life holds hope for a better tomorrow.

When I spoke to the cross-eyed toilet cleaner and the retail assistant in the hotel, there was much the same sense of optimism. John told me that many are very poor in the rural areas of China but what I could see was that even the very poor in Beijing had fair hopes of a better tomorrow.

Consider also that the Beijing government charges only 2 yuan per pax for any distance travelled. Such a policy means that those who travel short distances subsidize others who travel long distances. This helps the poor.

You see, folks who live far from the city centre do so because they are poor and cannot afford accommodation close to the city centre. For such folks (too poor to stay close by) transport is a necessary expenditure that can take up a relatively larger percentage of earnings. And yet, it is poorer folks like these who MOST NEED to accumulate resources so that (according to conservation of resources theory) they can invest resources to protect themselves against resource loss and resource depletion (i.e., the poverty trap).

Unlike housing, transport is an essential that is not vulnerable to speculation, and people MUST travel to work. The Beijing government charges a 2 yuan flat rate for subway travel. This helps the very poor save money. What the Beijing government did with their subway system has clearly the interests of poor people in mind.

It is thus unseemly that we have lately restructured public transport fares to be "fairer" and that the elderly who use to enjoy subsidies now have to pay their fair share. This does not bode well for the income gap. It is thus ironic that in Singapore, we have become so enamoured of the Western values imbibed from USA (that every man shall be accountable for his own actions and life)... we forget that even the fingers of our hand come in different lengths, and that some fingers help out where others cannot do.

John Ping shared that in the last decade, crime rates have fallen. Travelling around the country is safer. Robberies have become less commonplace. Whilst the enterprising Chinese people will find more than one way to swindle... and creative swindling is fairly commonplace... violent crimes are not. It is thus ironic that youths wielding parangs are no longer afraid of the Singapore Police Force.

What happened to us? Where is the strong and stubborn government who thinks through carefully how to make life better for poor people, and cares not a jot about what the West says about no holds barred free speech... democracy... and all manner of strange ideologies that neither common Singaporeans nor the common Chinese care about? Generally people just want peace, wealth and family. Who cares whether a regime is fully democratic or communist or socialist? The test of the government is in the eyes of the poor. Is there hope? Are there opportunities? Or do I see myself get left behind as the country powers ahead?

2 comments:

Wen-ai said...

Totally agree with you. For the longest time, I simply cannot understand why cant the elderly and the disabled enjoy subsidize fares w/o restrictions? Why the subsidy only during off-peak hours (ie: after 9 am on weekdays)? Isn't the govt trying to increase retirement age and encourage "active" retirement? Then how can the elderly enjoy the subsidy during off-peak hours if they have to rush to work like everyone else? Comfort and SMRT's net profit margin are in the range of 8%-16%, which is enviable by many MNCs.

petunialee said...

Wen-ai: yup!