A migrant worker is a friend for life
By Patti Waldmeir in Shanghai
This must be “take a migrant to dinner” month in China. Twice in the
past three weeks, China’s baffled migrant workers – accustomed to
being reviled, despised or at best ignored – have found themselves
feted at sumptuous dinners thrown by wealthy entrepreneurs in Beijing
On Thursday night – which is Chinese Valentine’s day – 200 migrant
labourers have been invited to spend a night of passion with their
spouses in hotel rooms paid for by Chinese college students.
And it seems this epidemic of civic spirit is not just directed at
those who commute a few thousand kilometres to work: white-collar
workers in Shanghai were befuddled to find young men in sports cars
offering free rides to commuters battling the city’s recent typhoon.
Not surprisingly, all three groups – the migrant diners, the lovebird
labourers and the bedraggled clerks – took some convincing that it was
not all a scam. Greed is a given in today’s China; no one expects
Even the college students, whose empathy for the migrant plight grew
out of summer internships at construction sites, were accused of doing
it just out of ego. It’s a hard life as a philanthropist these days in
China: everyone thinks you are in it just for the money.
Yuan Yue gets accused of that all the time: a venture capitalist,
information industry tycoon and media celebrity, he was the host of
last week’s migrant worker dinner in Shanghai. Born a peasant in one
of the poorest parts of eastern China, he migrated to Shanghai (via
London) and now says he want to give other migrants the helping hand
he never had.
So he rounded up 30 migrants, 10 bosses and a host of television
cameras, and took us all to dinner. The traditional Shanghai liquor
flowed freely (especially a brand that Mr Yuan has a contract to
promote), and everyone got a matching T-shirt saying “Invite a Migrant
Worker to Eat a Meal”. Two lucky guests got special watches that can
detect when the wearer is drunk (which will doubtless prove useful if,
as planned, such dinners continue on a regular basis).
The last course of the meal was what Mr Yuan described as “weight loss
chocolates” – prompting one migrant to comment that he was more
interested in gaining than losing weight.
Mr Yuan, whose main philanthropic focus is boosting the social
engagement of young Chinese, says the dinner was about networking. In
a society where guanxi, or relationships, are all important, such
workers are not just poor, they are completely guanxi-less: lonely,
bored and without the connections they need to escape from the migrant
Some industrialists apparently prefer their workers lonely, bored and
guanxi-less, since Mr Yuan says some entrepreneurs did not want to
send workers lest they be poached by the pit boss at the next table.
Not for Valentine’s
And therein lies one of the subtler motivations for migrant dining,
says Li Jiuxin, chief executive of Gzhong.cn, an online employment
agency and Beijing migrant dinner organiser. He says a boss who shows
human kindness to his staff – in an age when young migrants typically
jump from job to job in under a year – is a boss who can beat the
scourge of labour shortages. Make a friend of a migrant, and you have
a friend for life, he says.
So the migrant dinners seem to be one part self-interest, one chunk
self-promotion, one part selflessness – and one part publicity aimed
at giving the Chinese über-rich a better image.
But what about those who sullied their sports cars carrying white-
collar refugees during the typhoon? Well that seems to have been a
mixture of public spiritedness and ennui: Kevin Sun, who drove his
father’s Land Rover for typhoon relief, says those born after 1985 or
1990 – the second generation of China’s wealthy – often feel bored. “I
think helping people is a way to find pleasure in such boredom,” he
says, adding “maybe one day when I need help they can offer me a hand
For the sake of social harmony – not to mention the future of
capitalism with Chinese characteristics – let’s hope that ennui can be
put to good use. Rich Chinese have a reputation for being
narcissistic, ostentatious and selfish. It is time they invested a
chunk of profits in changing that image.