How Li Luyuan Became Middle-Class

The magazine section of the Financial Times had a fascinating article this past weekend by Alexandra Harney, author of The China Price: The True Cost of Chinese Competitive Advantage, that follows a woman living in from her humble beginnings as a factory worker to a competitive and moderately successful young real estate agent. From the Financial Times (you’ll need to register to read it, but registration is free):

Selling real estate turned out to be a lot harder than sewing sweaters. As Shenzhen property prices rose – by 30 per cent in 2006 – real-estate agencies opened thousands of branches around the city. In every district, agents stood on corners, squinting in the south China sun, distributing flyers of available properties. Three agencies occupied Luyuan’s block alone, each with its own army of commissioned youth.

Luyuan’s new colleagues didn’t talk much, but she felt sure they would all become friends. They sat in the agency’s tiny office reading the newspaper, waiting for customers and wishing the phone would ring. When it did, the first person to pick it up got the business.

Alternately brutally competitive and boring, the job nonetheless thrilled Luyuan. Work that allowed you to sit and read the paper hardly seemed like work at all. She marvelled at how quickly her life changed. “At the factory, our social circle is limited and we don’t communicate with anyone other than the people we live with,” she said. Life was confined to the narrow, colourless strip between factory and dormitory. Now, her customers came from a mixture of backgrounds and income levels. And her days were no longer measured by the number of sweaters she sewed. “I like the freedom and the lack of restrictions,” she said.

But over the next months, the reality of life outside the relative safety of the factories sank in. Luyuan’s new apartment was across the highway from room 817, down a dark, pungent alley in the red-light district. She shared a dirty common area with the residents of six other rooms. The grease-stained communal kitchen and bathroom with metered tap water disgusted her. The cardboard walls were so thin she could hear everything her neighbours said, every television programme they watched. Her room was dominated by a rickety bunkbed. For this, she paid $39 a month, her entire first month’s salary.


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