The Long March: Escaping the iron rice bowl

By Julie Middleton, Julie Middleton
Readers' Views: Click on the link at end of story.

The Chinese call it the "iron rice bowl" - financially well-off but utterly trapped. And Sean Wang is sick of it.

He is paid for 40 hours a week but works at least 55 to keep his accountancy job at China Telecom in his native Shenyang, northeast China's major city. He also has to entertain business clients - four nights a week if he's unlucky.

Under the unwritten but unyielding rules of Chinese business life, alcohol seals deals. Sean, 33, is outgoing but he can't take much of it. However, he is expected to match his clients' intake of spirits late into the night - "if you refuse a drink you're refusing your customer".

At 7.30 the next morning he's back at his desk, facing the stress of another 11 or 12-hour day.

Sean, who has an accountancy master's degree and is in charge of financial reporting, usually works an unpaid Saturday as well.

His manager tells him that staff belong to the company and families come second.

Sean feels he is stuck on a speeding train that isn't slowing down or changing direction.

He has no autonomy, no flexibility, and, he fears, no life.

Add the crowding in a city of nearly 7 million people, heavy traffic and "seriously bad" pollution from Shenyang's heavy industry - nine of the world's 10 most grimy cities are in China - and he's getting worn out.

His 33-year-old wife, Susan Ma, is also fed up with the stress, although she tolerates the daily grind more stoically.

Also Shenyang-born and an accounting staffer for China Telecom - the pair met at the company in September 1996 and married eight months later - she works long hours and often entertains clients as well.

The couple have a high standard of living and own their apartment.

But they feel, with some foreboding, that they will still be clutching that iron rice bowl in 20 years.

For Sean and Susan, there is no epiphany, no moment of frustration when they crack and decide they can't stand things a moment more. Rather, as the old millennium gives way to the new, they start registering a nagging sense of dissatisfaction.

Foreign accountants Sean meets through work tell him that if he improves his English and becomes a chartered accountant in a developed country, his career will take off.

He looks up information on study in Australia.

A friend about to migrate to Canada says that as a resident of a developed country rather than as a foreign student, study will cost him less. It is Susan who convinces Sean they should try to migrate.

New Zealand is becoming home to increasing numbers of people born in mainland China.

In the 2004-2005 year 5061 people from China were granted residency, and more than 41,000 people received a work or student permit, both of which can convert to residency.

In Auckland City, the Chinese population - which includes people of Chinese ethnicity from places such as Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore - was equivalent to the Maori population by the 2001 Census, totalling 8 per cent or 30,285 people. China has been progressively opening up to the world, and with developed countries actively courting overseas labour, a trickle is becoming a flood.

To discover what is driving Chinese from their homeland - which has one of the longest continuous cultures on earth - to a country so small and so far away, the Herald went to China's east, the birthplace of many of our Chinese-Kiwis, to find out about life and the would-be migrants' motivations to leave.

The dreams are compelling but the road hard.

Migration is not an easy journey and not everyone gets the new life they are looking for.

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