Workers get onto shared bikes as they leave a construction site of a skyscraper in Beijing on November 26, 2021. Photo: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images
After his 19-year-old son went missing in 2020, a Chinese man surnamed Yue quit his job as a fishing boat sailor and embarked on a searching trip across north China. Along the way, he took up all sorts of physical work to support his wife and a younger son and pay for his sick parents’ medical bills.The 43-year-old toiled day and night. This month, in Beijing, he worked at construction sites, restaurants, office buildings, residential compounds, a trash collection point, and a shopping mall. Over the course of two weeks, he did 31 gigs, including many overnight ones, and only ate out once.
The migrant worker’s extraordinary hardship was accidentally exposed this week after he tested positive for COVID-19 and had his detailed itinerary released to the public, a routine practice by health authorities seeking to trace a patient’s possible contacts.Yue’s tough life came as a shock to many middle-class Chinese, reminding them of an entire class of underprivileged workers who did not enjoy the prosperity brought by China’s economic boom as they did.“This was the first time I cried reading contact-tracing information,” a person wrote on the microblogging site Weibo, where many users have expressed sympathy and sadness. On Jan. 10, for example, he worked at a chain restaurant from midnight to 1:45 a.m., and moved to work at another branch at 2 a.m. At 3 a.m., he started working at an office building in Beijing’s central business district. One hour later, he arrived at a suburban industrial zone 20 kilometers away. At 9 a.m., he went to work at a villa compound.Many Chinese have in recent years expressed frustration with the staggering inequality in China. Decades of economic growth has turned China into the billionaire capital of the world but left many others struggling to access basic social services. Today, more than 40 percent of the Chinese population live on a monthly income of 1,000 yuan ($140).
China’s COVID-19 contact tracing has exposed this divide by revealing snapshots of people’s lives, including their work, leisure, and spending habits. Internet users have compared Yue’s life to that of another Beijing resident who tested positive for the virus a few days earlier. When Yue was hopping from one gig to another, this person visited luxury fashion stores, posh restaurants, a cafe, and dessert shops. They—the authorities did not identify their gender—also attended a stand-up comedy show, visited a skiing resort, got a hair perm, and rode a private car to work every weekday morning.But some have also criticized the public scrutiny of ordinary people’s lives in China’s COVID-19 control program, calling it a frightening state intrusion into citizens’ privacy. Over the past two years, patients have suffered from doxxing and online abuse after their visits to bars and shopping malls were made public without their consent. “No matter if it’s daytime shopping or nighttime working, it should be private information,” a Weibo user wrote. “They become topics for public discussions without agreeing to it.”In Chinese cities, migrant workers from rural areas take up essential low-paying jobs, such as food delivery and construction, but they are denied the residency privilege and social welfare exclusively for urban households. The Beijing government in 2017 launched a mass campaign to evict what it called “low-end population”—migrants from what were deemed illegal dwellings, prompting public outrage.
In an interview with China News Weekly, Yue said he found jobs from a WeChat group. Most of the construction gigs took place at late night, because the capital city did not allow big trucks during the day. Yue said he had breakfasts provided by employers, and made his own lunch at his 10 square meter (108 sq ft) home. The work he did included carrying bags of concrete or sand up flights of stairs, he said. The pay started at 1 Chinese yuan (16 cents) per bag, which weighed 30 to 50 kilograms, and he received an additional yuan for every floor he had to climb. He said he also loaded construction waste onto trucks.Due to Yue’s positive test result, the migrant worker neighborhood he lived in has been sealed off. Now isolated at a Beijing hospital, Yue said he was in the process of shangfang, a kind of petition system that allows people to appeal to upper-level governments when they feel mistreated by local cadres. Originally from Weihai, a coastal city in the eastern province of Shandong, Yue traveled through several nearby provinces looking for his son, who suddenly went incommunicado while working at a food factory, Yue told China News Weekly. His younger son is in primary school. His wife is taking care of the child while making some $1,600 a year drying seaweed. Both of his parents suffer from chronic diseases. His father, 76, is paralyzed, while his mother, 66, recently broke an arm. Yue said police in his home city Rongcheng had refused to help locate his missing son, whom he suspected had fallen victim to a scam. After he started appealing, police told him they found a corpse that belonged to his son. Yue said the body was not his son’s. After Yue’s story went viral on Thursday, internet users posted thousands of angry comments on the Weibo pages of police departments in his home province Shandong. The Rongcheng police told news outlet Thepaper.cn that they were still investigating the case.Follow Viola Zhou on Twitter.