“What good is socialism?” was the frustrated lament I made to myself last night after a surprise encounter with 3 homeless men. My main surprise was that they aren’t homeless.
We live in the most spectacular and beautiful city I know, abounding in wealth, good food, comfort, and inequality. Late last night on a short walk, perhaps just 100 meters from our comfortable apartment complex, I saw three men on the steps of a spacious office building with their coarse blankets getting ready to sleep in the winter cold, nearly out of sight but not quite. It was about 35º F. I had never seen homeless people sleeping on the street in this upscale part of town and was surprised. Shanghai has very few obviously homeless people, though there are beggars and one can find people sleeping at train stations and around the main metro hub at People’s Square.
I wondered what to do and decided to turn the corner and go into a convenience store and get some hot items and other things to provide a warm meal. I can back with my little offerings and walked up to them. “Looks like you’re in a tough situation, so here’s some food for you,” I said. They were so gracious and cheerful–in fact, they were actually very sweet gentlemen. They could speak Mandarin, not just some bizarre dialect, so I asked them about where they were from and their situation. To my amazement, I learned that these men aren’t homeless nor unemployed. They are workers, migrant workers from neighboring Anhui province, working hard here in Shanghai doing demolition work, tearing down old buildings to prepare for new construction. It is tough and dangerous work. Usually construction workers are provided with shelter, but I am guessing the jobs they have either don’t come with that or charge some small fee for housing, which these workers would rather not pay because they are out to save every penny possible for their families back home.
As I met them and pondered their painful situation, I felt angry at the vast bureaucracies here and in the West that have failed the poor. What good is all that theory of sharing and equality and all that massive power that owns everything in sight and can take and redistribute anything, anytime, when the poor are left sleeping in the cold? One can argue that socialism in practice is not really about sharing the wealth, but centralizing power and wealth, with the rhetoric of sharing and equality just being PR tools to justify more grabbing.
The lot of migrant workers in China is especially serious. It’s one of great concern to many of the more enlightened leaders in China, and there are some who really get it and are seeking to do good, but the system has serious problems that will be difficult to resolve now. The wealth of the cities is built on the backs of the working poor, especially the farmers in the country and those from the country who come to the cities to earn more money. The farmers earn so little (about $800 a year in one case I know), partly because of price controls that keep prices low. This creates huge incentives to leave the country and come to the cities, but then they face the burden of a “hukou” registration system that limits their social benefits if they step outside the region where they are registered. So migrant workers coming to Shanghai cannot get public education for their children. The health care benefits they can receive are greatly reduced. The ability to move and work where you want is restricted. If people were suddenly able to go live anywhere and get public education, etc., too many farms would become empty and the cities would be completely overwhelmed. Bureaucracies managing the unmanageable realities of price and supply sometimes create bubbles and distortions in the economy that become increasingly difficult to resolve. I don’t know the solution, but am pained at the poverty of the farmers and the migrant workers who come to the cities to seek more opportunity. (Yes, I know, I know: I am an outsider with no right to meddle in China’s complex political system. But I’m rooting for China and love China and want to see it rise–the poor included. And yes, there has been remarkable progress in lifting the poor and advancing the economy of China. It is a land of remarkable achievements and progress, and grand hope and vision. But there are still people sleeping in the cold on the streets. Sigh.)
Whether it’s the overtly Marxist systems of Europe and Asia or the crony capitalist system of the U.S., mingled with increasing socialism, these systems redistribute vast amounts of wealth in ways that often seem to limit opportunity and make life difficult for the ones doing the hardest work. Neither system is the one that will reign in Zion one day.
I look forward to Zion, where there will be no more poor among us not because we have driven them out or reduced their population with eugenics and abortion, but because we are all brothers and sisters in the Gospel unwilling to let those we love do without. And because we will be engaged in creating opportunities, not limiting them with endless bureaucracy.
Meanwhile, what to do for my new friends who sleep in the cold? There must be thousands of them hidden in the shadows of this city that I just haven’t noticed.