What are China's State Secrets

The sun hasn't really risen over Beijing yet, but the restaurants on the roadside are already open. The cooks have fired up their woks, brought the oil to the boil by frying the youtiao - fried dough sticks, one yuan each. They heated soy milk and folded dumplings. Breakfast for hundreds of migrant workers. It's only 4:30 a.m. on this dusty arterial road in the Beijing suburb of Shunyi, but busier than many pedestrian streets on a Saturday afternoon. Everywhere you see people trying to get a seat in one of the rickety buses that stop here.

They call this street in Beijing the "labor market". It is the meeting point for all those who keep the capital going. If you have a permanent job, you can take the bus to the city center from here: to Dongzhimen, to the diplomatic quarter or to Tiananmen Square. But most of them do not know in the morning what kind of work is waiting for them today. They are plumbers, roofers and former factory workers who have lost their jobs in the past few weeks. They have to do something to survive, to support their family at home, that's why they come here. Every day, early in the morning.

The minibuses park close together. And the workers crouch close together in it. Ten, twelve, sometimes even fifteen squeeze together. The deal is simple: you do any job, whether on a construction site or in a nursery, washing windows or hauling boxes in a factory. They often only find out in the morning where they are going, how long they have to toil. One thing is certain: men are paid 150 yuan for eight hours of work, which is the equivalent of just under 19 euros, plus a warm meal. Women get ten yuan less. Why?

"That's just the way it is," says Shen Wang, he wears a Hawaiian shirt and smokes. Three cigarettes in 15 minutes. "I'm a building contractor," he says curtly. "I hire all kinds of workers. Today we are planting trees." Apricots, pines, poplars, Japanese pagoda trees and jujube, the Chinese dates. "We have been doing this for several days," interferes Zhou Fengli. He is 48 years old and has been on Shen's bus for a couple of weeks. He bought a mug of warm soy milk at one of the stands and drinks with a straw so that he doesn't have to take off his mask. "Before the epidemic, I made more than 6,000 yuan a month from meals and housing. Now I'm down to 3,000 yuan," he says. Then they have to go. Zhou gets on the bus and closes the tailgate. It is 5.30 a.m. when they leave, 14 workers cooped up in the contractor's car. Lucky

The last complete year without growth in the People's Republic was in 1976

For those who come later that morning, it will be difficult to find work. The corona crisis has fully gripped the Chinese labor market. In the first quarter, the gross domestic product slumped by 6.8 percent compared to the same period in the previous year. It is the first negative value since the beginning of the quarterly surveys in 1992. The last complete year without growth in the People's Republic was in 1976, when state founder Mao Zedong died.

The official unemployment rate in China is exactly six percent. According to the statistics office, it was 6.2 percent in February - a record. But the numbers should be treated with caution. Of course, China has a national statistics agency that calculates steel production, energy demand and growth quarter by quarter. But how meaningful is data in a country where many statistics are not kept at all or are disappearing in secret?

There is, for example, the Gini coefficient. This small number alone says a lot about a state: How fair is wealth distributed? A Gini coefficient of zero is the equalizing utopia: everyone then owns as much as everyone else. On the other hand, if the index were one, everything would belong to one individual. The Scandinavian countries are around 0.25, Germany around 0.3, and the United States around 0.45. The United Nations does the math: a coefficient of 0.4 is a warning sign, and from 0.6 onwards, a revolution can be expected. China last published the value in 2000.

It wasn't until twelve years later that a professor from Chengdu had his students swarmed out for the first Chinese wealth study. They rattled off around 40,000 households, going from door to door. How many pigs does a farmer have? How many cars can a family afford? Is there a share portfolio? Time deposit accounts? Jewels at all? The students also asked about property ownership. Rather as a waste product, they calculated China's Gini coefficients at the time. The result caused a stir in 2012: 0.61. Colombia has a similar value with its drug lords. Since then, the government has been collecting the coefficient itself again. The official figure is 0.468.

It is similar with the unemployment rate. "There are two statistics," said Wang Dan, an economist with the Economist Intelligence Unit in Beijing. "For years only those who lived in cities and paid social security contributions were recorded. This rate is always around four percent. Even now." The nearly 300 million migrant workers in China are not included because they are not registered in the cities. Two years ago the methodology was changed slightly and a second statistic was introduced. Now there are surveys in which migrant workers also take part. This is how the six percent results. But even this approach does not capture the real extent. Because: Those who can no longer find a job in the cities often move back to the countryside, back to their home villages, but nobody is interviewed there.

At the end of April, economists at a Chinese securities dealer published a study that caused a great deal of unrest. The company Zhongtai Securities estimated that 70 million Chinese could have lost their jobs. All of Italy and Austria without employment at once - including pensioners and babies? 20.5 percent unemployment in a country that calls itself socialist? Political explosive. The report was withdrawn that same day. Was it pressure from the authorities? The company does not respond to calls and e-mails.

A good four weeks ago, the analysts from Gavekal Dragonomics, who specialize in China, came up with similar figures. According to their findings, 60 to 100 million Chinese are currently unemployed. "Research on unemployment is a sensitive topic in China," says economist Wang Dan. "We are assuming 18 percent for the second quarter in our calculations." In other words, around 40 million migrant workers could be unemployed at the moment. Poland has fewer inhabitants.

"I worked every day unless it was pouring rain."

Fifteen hours after getting into the contractor's minibus, day laborer Zhou is back on the dusty street in Shunyi. Eat something more, then go to bed early to get on one of the buses again tomorrow at 4.30 a.m. "I worked every day unless it was pouring rain," he says. He shares the room nearby with another man he has only known for a few days. The rent is 300 yuan for each per month - two days' wages.

"I have planted more than a hundred trees." First dig the hole, then lower the tree with the forklift and finally fill it up again. Today he worked overtime and the contractor sent him 200 yuan. Zhou pulls out his cell phone, swipes the screen and opens Alipay, a payment app that almost everyone in China uses. "Before the Corona crisis, I worked in a sewage treatment plant in Tianjin." During the Spring Festival, he went to his wife and son in his home province of Heilongjiang, China's Siberia. "It's exactly 150 miles from home to the Russian border," he says.

There he was stuck, because of the corona virus, like almost all of his friends, lockdown until April 26th. Almost three months of no work, no income, the job in the sewage treatment plant had long since been taken again. "It hit a lot of us," says Zhou. He made his way, this time to Beijing. "The capital has the strictest hygiene regulations in the country. There is less competition and wages are higher." Nevertheless, he never had a corona test done, and he was not in quarantine either. "I'm healthy, I donate blood twice a year, I don't have to go to the hospital." They would not treat him in Beijing anyway, at least not for free, because he is not registered, like almost all migrant workers.

That never led to major protests. For many farmers it has been an opportunity so far to leave their fields behind, to move to the cities and to earn much more than before as factory workers or waiters. But now works are closing; Restaurants and hairdressers no longer have customers, and China's social contract is reaching its limits.

The National People's Congress met in Beijing at the end of May. The government presented itself confidently. The world is coughing and feverish, only the People's Republic has managed to put down the insidious virus, that was the message. The fight against the coronavirus has long legitimized the power of the Communist Party and appeased the people, who are likely to experience a recession for the first time since the end of the Cultural Revolution.

"Now and in the near future, China will face challenges like never before," said Prime Minister Li Keqiang in his opening address to delegates in the Great Hall of the People. The country has a "strong economic base", an "enormous market potential and hundreds of millions of intelligent and hardworking people". Li also presented an idea: Anyone who has lost their job should open a street stall, bake pancakes, sell ice cream or, if necessary, socks. The dealers and small shops are "the fireworks of the world. China's elixir of life. They are just as important as all other companies," said Li. "We will support you!"

Hong Kexin, 20, took her prime minister at his word. Just like Zhou Fengli, who gets on the bus in Shunyi every morning, she comes from Heilongjiang, the northernmost province of the People's Republic. When she was 18, she came to Beijing. In the spring, she lost her job as a baker because no one came into the business anymore, after all, half the country was locked up at home. Fortunately, she says, her boyfriend was still making money at the time. She has been back to work as a pastry chef for a few weeks. She too heard Prime Minister Li's speech and thought, why not make some extra money? Recover the lost money from the past few months? "I thought about baking. But that is complicated with hygiene." Instead, Hong Kexin bought a tub of sunflower for 400 yuan and went to stand in front of the mall where she used to sell bread.

For years the government had harassed the street vendors, pushed them back and closed their shops in the traditional old town streets. In Beijing, in particular, the city administration had acted rigorously: construction crews walled migrant workers into the hutongs and set deadlines of a few days before they razed buildings with bulldozers. Flying vendors and food stalls did not fit into the image of China that the leadership in Beijing likes to paint - with lots of concrete and glass, a land of progress in which corporations shape the course of the world, no rickety stalls where noodle soup is simmering becomes. And now?

One official said, "There is no place for you little people in the big cities."

Suddenly there were traders in the street. Everywhere in the country. Many who stood in front of the shopping center in Beijing founded several groups at Wechat; almost every Chinese person has the app installed on their smartphone. More than 1500 dealers registered. "It was all over after two days," says Hong Kexin. City officials arrived early in the evening. "I set up my stand around 7 p.m., and maybe 30 minutes later they drove up in a white car, there were four or five men. They didn't identify themselves and they grabbed my flowers." Other traders were still able to save their goods and run away. "I was told by the city guard that Beijing was a city of the first category, just like Shanghai, Shenzhen and Guangzhou, and that street vendors had no business there," wrote a trader in the Wechat Group. Before the crisis he had his own travel agency. But who is still traveling today? "One of the officials said to me: There is no place for you little people in the big cities."

Hong Kexin fared no better. The men shouted to her that she had to report to the office and pay a fine. The day after the raid, she and her boyfriend stood in front of the gate of the Beijing Food and Drug Administration, Balizhuang Branch. "Nobody there anymore," the porter abruptly rejects. "Come again tomorrow!" But Hong Kexin stands firm. "Tomorrow the flowers will wither," she says. Then an official appears. "It's about my sunflowers. It was the first time I sold flowers on the street," she explains. The officer doesn't let himself be softened: “It's not about that,” he says, “that you are doing this for the first time, it is simply not allowed, just as you are not allowed to walk through the traffic light when it is red. Anyone who commits such acts is violating against the law, whether it's your first time doing it or not. " No more word about the "fireworks of the world" or the Chinese "elixir of life". After all, after a while the officer pulls out the bucket with the sunflowers. "Don't do that again," he warns.

But there is one thing he does not say. What the migrant workers should live on.