The Long March: Decision time

By Julie Middleton, Julie Middleton
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In high-rise Shanghai, Emilly Ji, 28, has had enough of crowds, noise and pollution. Shanghai is China's most densely-populated city, a place of long, cold winters, and 17 million of the country's 1.3 billion people.

Emilly's frustrations come to a head the Sunday she goes with her husband, 31-year-old Guang Min Liu, to the Auto Shanghai show.

Although a car is the ultimate status symbol in China, only 3 per cent of the people have them - Emilly is among the 97 per cent who do not.

But it seems everyone wants to indulge their four-wheeled dreams at once and the modern underground train to the showgrounds is full, conversations at high volume.

Inside the vast venue, the crowd is jostling, but no one apologises when sticking their elbows into a neighbour's ribs. Techno music booms.

Guang Min pushes forward to take pictures of his favourite cars, and gets behind the wheel of a couple of four-wheel-drives.

Emilly starts feeling overwhelmed. After an hour, she and Guang Min have had enough.

"China has too many people - you feel crowded," Emilly says after escaping the crowds. "I worry about what the city will look like in 10 or 20 years' time."

She and Guang Min, both from the largely agricultural Henan province in central China and both of the Han ethnic majority, live at the upper reaches of the burgeoning but minority middle class.

Emilly (whose Chinese first name, Ge, is pronounced "ger" in her native Mandarin and her surname Ji as "gee") works as quality controller for an IT company that designs software for interactive exhibits, many of them at the top-class Shanghai Science and Technology Museum.

The money is outstanding for China - 120,000 yuan ($20,300) a year is, nearly three times the country's average annual income of $7865.

Guang Min - his name is pronounced "gwa meen" - is a senior IT and AV sales executive at the Shanghai office of Japanese electronics manufacturer Yamaha. His income is higher but he has to work long hours.

It is these kinds of lifestyle pressures which lead some people to think about leaving.

Emilly's reasons to migrate are more than just lifestyle choices.

Although Communist China's leaders have relaxed some of the rules on what citizens can do and how they can make money, political and social controls remain tight.

She would like to have four children. "In China, if you have more than one you are punished," she says.

But Emilly can't tell me what these sanctions are. You won't find it discussed in the heavily-censored Chinese media, but it is known that they can range from heavy fines equivalent to several years' wages to the horrific - forced late abortions and compulsory sterilisation.

Emilly knows her mother was somehow punished for having a second daughter, Ran, now 20 and at university. But she doesn't really know how, beyond a vague idea that she was demoted in her factory role.

Emilly understands why a developing country needs to control its population but says the consequences are disastrous - the one-child policy leads to individuals supporting two parents and four grandparents in what is labelled the 4-2-1 problem.

And she doesn't want to raise another member of the army of spoiled "little emperors" created since the one-child policy was imposed in 1989.

"Some children are so loved by their families that they think just of themselves: I want, I want," she says. "It's not very good.

"I can remember in my childhood, my sister Ran and me, we shared things. We also share a feeling, you know, that we will never be alone. Now, children aren't used to that."

Emilly first became aware of New Zealand after friends of her parents sent their son over to study. She recalls hearing New Zealanders described as "very friendly, and the school very good - everything was different but it was good, and better than in China".

She was surprised to hear that discussion between teachers and students was encouraged.

Emilly was eventually lured to a migration seminar. "It said something like: New Zealand is a good place, you can go and have the good life. It was a very beautiful place and it had very good people.

"They told me it was very easy to come there. The other thing they said that was that when you get old, the Government will give you more support." There is no free health care in China and scant social welfare.

Emilly imagined: "New Zealand is good for people having space. New Zealand is a peaceful land. It looks pretty."

Her impressions came largely from television, the internet, anecdotes, and, most profoundly, The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The movies were hits in China, and made Emilly realise that New Zealand was not only beautiful and spacious, its IT industry was sophisticated. "We see the foreign movies and think life elsewhere is cool. It's different to ours."

On television and in cyberspace she has seen "very interesting things ... carvings. I remember the fish, seafood. Many sheep. Farmers. Programmes about movie-making and special effects."

Unlike most Chinese, Emilly has tasted life in the West. Armed with a business administration degree from the Nanjing Economics University, she taught herself programming in her spare time while working in IT network maintenance for global company Haier, China's largest home appliance maker.

With an eye on the future, she did a master's degree in computer programming at the University of Hertfordshire in England, spurred on by a cousin, Ruby, who was already there. "She said, 'If you always stay home, you will never know what life looks like outside'."

Before she left for Britain Emilly chose an English name from a list provided by an English-language teacher, the first New Zealander she had met.

"She said that the name Emilly meant 'work hard and get respect from other people'." Western names are fashionable in China. The most popular, she says, are Tom (Cruise), James (Bond) and Helen (of Troy, after a TV mini-series that aired in China).

We're talking in the lounge of the couple's 10th floor apartment, its 180 square metres making it large for Shanghai. It is 10 years old and sited above a busy road in the suburb of Yangjing on the east of Shanghai's murky Huangpu River. With polished floors, a galley kitchen, two bedrooms and two bathrooms, it looks much like an upmarket flat in New Zealand.

It is a palace compared with the ubiquitous shabby, 50 square metre state-allocated boxes that often house several generations.

Emilly and Guang Min's generation is the first in three to be able to buy property. When the Government realised in the early 1990s that state firms could no longer afford to house their workers, it opened the gates to private developers.

The couple paid 1 million yuan ($170,000) for their place in 2003 and its value is now $255,000. They pay off a mortgage at 5 per cent interest.

The couple live in Shanghai because it is, they say, the most Westernised of China's cities. Just 16 years ago, the earth below their home was rice paddies and pig farms. In 1990 the Government decreed it part of a "special economic zone", a place for West and East to do business. The paddies were transformed into a city-within-a-city, ribboned by roads, dotted with skyscrapers, apartment blocks, and neon.

In two weeks following Emilly - going to work, eating out, visiting the markets, shopping, meeting her friends, and going to the movies - I am constantly struck at how much her life resembles that of the average working, educated, childless woman, and how Shanghai's glitz, an expression of China's growing economic might, is jammed next to grinding poverty. And always there's the incessant noise - frantic construction-site crashing, the non-stop parps of erratically-driven cars, the roars of smoke-belching buses, buzzing scooters, and the tings of bicycle bells. The other regular accompaniment is a lung-scraping "hoick" as people spit on the footpath.

There are some expensive cars carrying home-grown capitalists and a smaller number of Communist Party officials. But it's bikes that wheel in front of you everywhere you turn - there are about 6.5 million in the city. Straight-backed women pedal to work in high heels and immaculate clothing, or get their men to pedal while they perch sidesaddle on the carrier.

Work bikes with ute-like flat decks balance teetering piles of material. Everyone rings their bell as they come into accident range.

Young women dressed smartly in western outfits stride by, hand-in-hand. Emilly says that's a sign of close friendship and quite normal in China. When she takes my hand one afternoon while we're out, it feels strange at first - but no one bats an eyelid, so I relax and get used it.

The less you have, it seems, the more you live your life in public. Bike puncture repairers are busy at work on footpaths. Old people sit outside their buildings in the spring sun, watching the world go by.

Five scruffy middle-aged men squat on a street corner, playing cards. A handwritten sign advertises their skills - drilling, moving furniture, polishing floors, tearing down walls. Their clothes and looks indicate they are rural migrants, a group often treated as second-class by city Chinese.

People pass wearing brushed cotton pyjamas as streetwear. Walking through one estate, we pass a thin, elderly man wearing a high-collared Mao suit, eyes squeezed shut and nodding to folk music plunking out of a small transistor.

Underclothes are strung on washing-lines alongside the busiest roads, but only foreigners remark on it. People squat on their heels as they wait to cross the frantic roads.

In public and with strangers, the Chinese do not make eye contact, which is considered impolite. The exceptions are several elderly people who approach to shake the foreigner's hand - non-Chinese are rarely seen in the housing estates.

Only once do I see the authoritarian attitudes for which China's bureaucrats are famed. One afternoon near Emilly's flat, I see four men coming my way on the footpath, awkwardly lugging a long glass cabinet containing trays of steaming food.

A few paces further, I see why. Five uniformed men wielding mallets are smashing the cabinet's wooden base, and, presumably, an unapproved enterprise. People watch, their expressions bland, as the table becomes kindling. Five minutes after the officials disappear in trucks, the street cooks reappear from an alleyway. Trade is brisk again and they appear unconcerned.

The contrast with New Zealand street scenes are stark, but the thought of leaving China for the unknown isn't a scary prospect for Emilly. She doesn't see the point in checking out things in advance, although New Zealand is among more than 100 countries China now allows its citizens to visit.

"I have had enough of Shanghai life and I want to start a new life as soon as I can ... and if I leave it too long I am afraid I might not get pregnant."

Her mother has accepted Emilly's wish to migrate, but her father says she is going too far away. Migration is beyond their comprehension. But they concede that as a married woman Emilly makes her own choices.

The New Zealand plan would be that Emilly gets a job while Guang Min sets up some sort of business. They have $200,000 squirrelled away to finance the business and cope with delays getting work.

But Emilly is not sure whether New Zealand will accept them. So one night she sits at the powerful computer she built herself and finds the New Zealand Immigration Service website (www.nzis.govt.nz).

The opening page has a picture of two smiling primary-age girls, one with her arm around the other.

She reads that New Zealand wants "people who value our culture, our country, our way of life to help boost our strong economy". Employment is high, but the market is still competitive. Migrants need good English, and looking for jobs "can take some time and effort".

Emilly takes a look at the skill-shortage list. Yes, there's IT.

She continues reading: "We don't have high crime rates, our police don't carry guns and instances of corruption are virtually unheard of ... we don't have abject poverty or hunger and we don't have the pollution, congestion, health issues and cramped city living that we see elsewhere".

Emilly clicks through to a guide which allocates points for age, skills, and qualifications, and reads that the level required to apply as a skilled migrant - a process called an "expression of interest" - is 100.

She clicks through questions on whether she and her partner have jobs (yes) and New Zealand-recognised qualifications (yes), whether they speak English (yes, although not much); whether they intend to work in an area of skills shortage (yes), or in a region earmarked to grow (don't know). When she hits calculate, she gets 115 - well above 100 she needs.

Maybe she and Guang Min will be able to have a new life.

* Julie Middleton and Kenny Rodger travelled to China with the support of the Asia-New Zealand Foundation

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