Li’s brow furrowed as he turned in the seat to look at me, dumbfounded by my question.
“They have two arms, two legs. They can walk, or talk, can they not? And they cannot work?”
We were en route from our hotel near Tiananmen Square in Beijing to Mutianyu to visit the Great Wall, two of us in the backseat of a Volkswagen sedan with a driver and our 28-year-old guide, Li.
“Ask me any questions you like,” he had invited us. So we dove in. We asked him about life in China, about what he knew of the Tiananmen Square massacre, what his life’s goals were. About his family, his perceptions of the west.
About unemployment in China.
“What do you mean, unemployment?” he asked, puzzled by the absurdity of the query. “Everyone here can work. They can sell something, have a small shop. If nothing else, they can clean a street.”
He explained the complex yet simple system of public-private partnership in China. The government identifies a community need, locates a wealthy business man and “invites” him to sponsor the effort.
“A street cleaner can survive. The businessman provides a place to sleep, and one meal a day,” Li explained, adding that the job typically pays around $250 a month in addition to the place to crash with his or her family and a meager lunch or dinner.
This way the streets are cleaned (much more so than in the US, judging from our month-long tour), community needs are met (cities throughout China teem with laborers sweeping, polishing and tending to gardens, parks and public places) and everyone apparently works.
I explained that in the US about 8% of the working population currently cannot find a job.
“What do you mean, they cannot find a job? Everyone can work,” said Li, and he launched into a Chinese perspective on working that underscored our different mindsets.
He simply could not understand our system of the contemporary workplace.
“In the US, making jobs available to the public is viewed as the responsibility of businesses and the government,” I explained.
He shook his head. I tried another tack.
“We rely on companies to provide jobs for people, who, if they’re qualified from their education and experience, can obtain and keep the jobs.”
Big fail. Li wasn’t buying it.
“Why do they need to depend on a business, or the government?” he asked. “They can do something, anything, to work.
“Everybody must work.” He explained his own plan to leave his job as a tour guide and open a restaurant. He plans to use his home as collateral and rely on his parents to provide seed money.
“Why do I need someone else to help me, other than my family?” he asked.
It was a fair question, albeit rooted in cultural differences that make China the powerhouse machine of workaholic robots and the US the amalgamation of whiny, entitled brats that some might say we have become.
This whole thing gave me the beginning of a bit of a headache. Our talk left me conflicted both with my Germanic, work-oriented upbringing as well as my liberal inclination toward the responsibility of government and enterprise to create free market opportunities for all.
But the young man in the fake leather jacket had a point, and it left me wondering just how soft, how entitled and how misguided we in the West may have become.