The World of Chinese - - FRONT PAGE - BY HATTY LIU

One upon a time, the bus ticket ven­dors were model citizens in a bur­geon­ing na­tion, but to­day they are the sym­bol of a for­got­ten and un­needed ser­vice in a bustling, com­pet­i­tive econ­omy. Few buses roam the streets with ticket ven­dors these days, but there might be room left yet for these helpful old aun­ties.

In the early 1960s, the Chi­nese peo­ple were asked to learn from Lei Feng. A semi-myth­i­cal foot-sol­dier as­sid­u­ously de­voted to Mao Ze­dong Thought and serv­ing the peo­ple, Lei’s leg­end helped the Com­mu­nist Party to rally a na­tion still reel­ing from the dis­as­trous Great Leap For­ward. In the 1990s, as China’s new mar­ket econ­omy picked up speed, the peo­ple were given a new ide­o­log­i­cal model: a Beijing pub­lic tran­sit ticket ven­dor named Li Suli (李素丽).

Li’s back­story, like Lei’s, was em­phat­i­cally or­di­nary. The daugh­ter of a bus con­duc­tor, Li dreamed of be­com­ing a news­caster but scored 12 points too low on the en­trance ex­ams to go to col­lege. She then joined Beijing Bus Route 60 and, be­liev­ing that “even the least pres­ti­gious jobs need to be done well”, be­came the best and hard­est work­ing ticket ven­dor she could be. In her slo­gan-filled, 18-year ca­reer she be­came the “cane of the el­derly”, prepared news­pa­pers and spare cush­ions for pas­sen­gers, and once shamed a pas­sen­ger by clean­ing up his spit from the floor.

As ticket ven­dors dis­ap­pear f rom China’s bu ses , their l egend re­mains 时至今日,劳动模范李素丽还能被人记起,公共汽车售票员这个职业却正在淡出历史舞台

While the rest of the the coun­try was mak­ing de­mands about job se­cu­rity, social mo­bil­ity, and in­creased wages un­der the new mar­ket econ­omy, Li served years at a hum­ble job with a re­spon­si­ble at­ti­tude and smile, even­tu­ally earn­ing the ti­tle “Na­tion’s Model Worker” for demon­strat­ing that old Party adage, “la­bor is the most glo­ri­ous thing”.

Iron­i­cally, 20 years af­ter Li be­came the na­tion’s ex­em­plar of the or­di­nary, com­mon­place worker, her job has be­come all but ob­so­lete. Across China, IC card sys­tems and stan­dard­ized fares have taken over ven­dors’ ba­sic role, while au­to­mated record­ings and smart­phones re­placed them at an­nounc­ing stops and giv­ing travel di­rec­tions. Most Chi­nese ci­ties have al­ready done away with the po­si­tion. In Au­gust, 2015, Shang­hai an­nounced that they would put “ven­dor-less buses” on all of their routes ex­cept four that de­parted from the train sta­tion, cit­ing it­self as one of the last ci­ties in China to catch up with the times.

To­day the last stand of this dis­ap­pear­ing pro­fes­sion is Beijing, Li’s home base and a city with a tran­sit sys­tem no­to­ri­ous for ex­ten­sive sub­si­dies and old-style bu­reau­cracy; for in­stance, un­til prices were re­formed in 2014, a sub­way trip was a steal at a flat rate of 2 RMB, and bus fares started at 0.4 RMB if pay­ing with an IC card. Even so, the sys­tem is slowly chang­ing. In July of this year, ticket ven­dors on Beijing’s Bus Route 300 went on strike to protest the phas­ing out of their po­si­tion from the city’s tran­sit sys­tem.

Among their griev­ances, as told by a spokesper­son who doc­u­mented the in­ci­dents on­line, the ticket ven­dors were protest­ing the loss of their “iron rice bowl”, the life­time job se­cu­rity that used to be guar­an­teed by China’s so­cial­ist econ­omy. “Ven­dors work hard, have never done any­thing wrong, yet we’ve been told that our work will be re­placed by ma­chines and se­cu­rity guards,” a ven­dor named Liu Ying (alias) re­ported. They also protested the fact that the tran­sit com­pany, which is part of a state-owned con­glom­er­ate, had not an­nounced plans to place laid-off work­ers in other po­si­tions at the com­pany. “We’re get­ting up there in age and truly can’t change our field,” Liu com­plained.

Reactions from Bei­jingers who fol­lowed the in­ci­dent on­line were mixed, with sev­eral point­ing out that work­ing hard at the same job for many years hardly qual­i­fied a per­son for job se­cu­rity any­where in the cur­rent econ­omy, never mind at a job that is now re­dun­dant. Up and down the coun­try, iron rice bowls had been shat­ter­ing since the 1980s. Ticket ven­dors, in the cap­i­tal es­pe­cially, had been in­su­lated un­til now by the in­er­tia of state en­ter­prises and their bloated ben­e­fit net­works.

Whereas ticket ven­dors once rep­re­sented val­ues of old-fash­ioned hard work and hon­est re­ward vi­tal to a newly re­formed so­ci­ety, they now sym­bol­ize in­ef­fi­ciency and out­dated at­ti­tudes about em­ploy­ment, which have no place in an in­creas­ingly tech­ni­cal and com­pet­i­tive econ­omy. Pri­mar­ily older women (and some older men) who’ve worked long years in their com­pany at the detri­ment of gain­ing other skills, ticket ven­dors fall un­der what econ­o­mists call the “overem­ploy­ment” phe­nom­e­non in re­form­ing so­cial­ist economies (RSES); their griev­ances and oc­ca­sional protests re­main a del­i­cate sub­ject in China as it strug­gles to bal­ance eco­nomic growth and social har­mony.

Both Beijing and Shang­hai’s tran­sit au­thor­i­ties have re­fused our re­quest for com­ment. The orig­i­nal copies of the Sina Weibo posts by the spokesper­son cov­er­ing the strike have been re­moved, though the ac­count re­mains ac­tive.

As hinted by Liu’s com­ments, aside from ma­chines the other neme­sis of the ticket ven­dors is the tran­sit se­cu­rity guard. This is a rel­a­tively new po­si­tion, also mostly found in Beijing and Shang­hai, that was added to Beijing buses this year as ven­dors were laid off. The two groups are po­lar op­po­sites in a num­ber of ways. Ticket ven­dors are af­fec­tion­ately called “ticket vend­ing aun­ties”. They are re­quired to have a Beijing house­hold regis­tra­tion and col­lect gen­er­ous ben­e­fits de­spite be­lowa­v­er­age pay, around 4,300 RMB as re­ported on­line.

The guards are of­ten young, in their teens and early 20s. They are also


re­ported to be mi­grants from out­side of Beijing, and are stereo­typed as ap­a­thetic, ig­no­rant of lo­cal ge­og­ra­phy, and so­cially awk­ward in con­trast to the poised and opin­ion­ated “aun­ties”. Lo­cal media and on­line job posts also in­di­cate that tran­sit com­pa­nies are try­ing to re­cruit guards and “ser­vice per­son­nel” with col­lege or tech­ni­cal school ed­u­ca­tion in or­der to mod­ern­ize their im­age. Guards are em­ployed by private con­trac­tors, whose job ads in­di­cate that they are paid only half the re­ported av­er­age salary of ticket ven­dors and­men­tion no social in­sur­ance.

Though di­vided about the util­ity of ticket ven­dors, Bei­jingers more or less pre­fer them to the guards, or “safety per­son­nel” as they are of­fi­cial known. This mostly arises from the gen­eral an­i­mos­ity that Beijing na­tives have for waidi­ren (外地人), non-lo­cals who, as the old story goes, are in­vad­ing their city and tak­ing their jobs. Liu’s com­ments spec­i­fied that it was “Beijing” ven­dors who were protest­ing ma­chines and “non-lo­cal” guards. The strik­ers’ Weibo spokesper­son also ar­gued that hav­ing lo­cal Bei­jingers on Beijing buses pre­sented “Beijing char­ac­ter­is­tics” (北京特色), rare things to find in this day and age.

It’s cu­ri­ous that this in­ci­dent aris­ing from the ticket ven­dors’ pre­car­i­ous eco­nomic value also high­lighted how, sym­bol­i­cally, the pro­fes­sion is as ro­bust and re­silient as it was in the days of Li Suli. A cou­ple of blog­gers sym­pa­thetic to the ticket ven­dors’ cause have ref­er­enced the 1950s pro­pa­ganda film Spring Reigns Every­where《春满人(间》) and 1990s film Shang­hai Fever《股疯》)( , both of which fea­ture ticket-vend­ing char­ac­ters who em­body dif­fer­ent nos­tal­gic ideas about the pro­fes­sion. Spring’s Zhu Xi­uyun greets her pas­sen­gers sweetly and ef­fi­ciently climbs down to help a child aboard. Shang­hai Fever’s Fan Li likes to shout at er­rant cy­clists, but to her pas­sen­gers she is straight-talk­ing, wryly hu­mor­ous, and sur­pris­ingly kind—like a mother hen, she fusses, but it’s all for the pro­tec­tion of her young.

The legacy of Li, as well as the de­pic­tion of ticket ven­dors in these films, lives on. Bei­jingers who com­mented in sup­port of the strik­ing ven­dors were nos­tal­gic (and slightly tongue-in-cheek) about hear­ing their “aun­tie’s” brassy voice and her cease­less ad­mo­ni­tions of what you should and shouldn’t be do­ing. Af­ter all, being told when to let the el­derly sit, shouted at to keep or­der, and scru­ti­nized for ev­ery ac­tion by the well-mean­ing voice of au­thor­ity is as quin­tes­sen­tial a Chi­nese char­ac­ter­is­tic as any. It’s en­tan­gled in the mil­len­nia of his­tory of social hi­er­ar­chy, in which au­thor­ity fig­ures had a moral obli­ga­tion to guide, mold, and cor­rect whether or not it’s any of their busi­ness.

It’s also re­flec­tive of peo­ple’s con­tin­ued anx­i­eties about or­der and safety while liv­ing in a large pop­u­la­tion and chang­ing times. Shang­hai’s four bus routes from the train sta­tion are ac­tu­ally re­quired by city laws to re­tain their ticket ven­dors; Beijing tran­sit au­thor­i­ties also say that dou­ble-decker buses will con­tinue to em­ploy ven­dors. These are con­sid­ered par­tic­u­larly chal­leng­ing routes, as the mi­grant pop­u­la­tion from the train sta­tion are be­lieved to need extra su­per­vi­sion and street di­rec­tions, and ev­ery­one needs re­minders to move their lug­gage. The nar­row stairs and iso­lated up­per deck of dou­ble-deck­ers are just ask­ing for ac­ci­dents, thefts, and ticket dodgers.

Rem­i­nis­cences from for­mer ticket ven­dors have ap­peared in Chi­nese media in re­cent years. They paint a rather clearer-eyed pic­ture of what was ul­ti­mately a low-sta­tus job, when stripped of ide­ol­ogy. Two men in their 80s, who started work­ing as ticket ven­dors in the 1940s, vividly told Hangzhou Evening News of being hours on their feet, pressed against sweaty bod­ies all sum­mer long, being mis­taken for beg­gars col­lect­ing alms, beaten up by ticket dodgers, and even shot at dur­ing the Chi­nese Civil War. A soon-to-be laid off ven­dor in Zhun­nan, An­hui, told the lo­cal pa­per she hates it when pas­sen­gers ad­dress her rudely but likes it when the chil­dren call her “aun­tie”. She also de­scribed miss­ing lunch breaks, which were only 20 min­utes long, when­ever traf­fic puts her be­hind sched­ule. Mean­while, a for­mer ven­dor from Nan­chang wrote of ven­dors hav­ing prac­ti­cally no hol­i­days and hav­ing their breaks times used up by the com­pany’s safety checks, po­lit­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion, and team events.

And what was the fate of Li Suli, whose story taught count­less Chi­nese the glo­ri­ous­ness of work­ing for the na­tion re­gard­less of pres­tige, se­cu­rity, or pay? She’s still of­fi­cially em­ployed by the tran­sit sys­tem in Beijing, but she has not been a ticket ven­dor since 1998. In­stead, shortly af­ter star­ring in the Party’s 1996 “Learn From Li Suli” cam­paign, she started a tran­sit in­for­ma­tion hot­line, where she sup­pos­edly ad­vises call­ers on both tran­sit and per­sonal mat­ters to this day.


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