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A message from the jianbing man

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After two days without breakfast, I was glad to see the jianbing man this morning (jianbing is a delicious crepe like food that should be enjoyed by all). I was actually surprised to see him, the two big meetings of the Party start next week, and I had assumed they had forced him from the street early as usual.

When I asked where he had been, he said, “There was a health inspection. We get a phone call from someone who knows when these are, and so we stayed home.”

I nodded and expected the conversation to shift back to the usual topic: the cost of random goods in the US. In the last year the jianbing man has been absent a few days at a time nearly a dozen times, and it is almost always due to a government function somewhere in the city.

This time though, he had more to say, “When we can’t come to work, we lose a lot of money and people don’t get their breakfast.”

I added, “I don’t quite understand this kind of thing; every time there is an inspection in China, they just tell everyone to hide. But every city has jianbing men, why do they act like you don’t sell us all breakfast?”

“They just want to pass the inspection. It’s pointless. Really though, people need us. They need their breakfast,” the man said.

“You have to help us translate this message,” the woman who makes balls of rice chimed in.

“I would tell others myself,” the man added, “but I don’t know how to use the internet.”

The other women said the same thing. With that I handed them my $.50, took my jianbing, and agreed to help them spread this message.

Now, I know that I have discussed the comings and going of the jianbing man before, but I think we can learn something new from this brief exchange – for many in China, the internet has become the source of justice, even for those cut off from it.

Five years ago, it’s quite likely that these people would have assumed that the only possible action would be to file a petition with the gov’t and accept the risks that come with that. However, now there has been such a shift in how griefs are aired that the internet has become the first choice.

Later in my office, a co-worker came to the realization that the web wasn’t quite as free as she had thought. After all, she has no interest in politics (she’s surprised that I bother reading People’s Daily), and mostly uses the internet for celebrity rumors and shopping. But today she came across a report that a man had been wrongly arrested for spreading a “rumor” about a gov’t official, it turned out that he hadn’t actually posted the message, but had simply re-posted it (full story). Normally these arrests aren’t reported on popular sites, but because this was a case of wrongful imprisonment, it was more widely discussed than when an activist gets taken in the night.

As those at the lower rungs of society are starting to realize the potential of the internet, those in the middle are slowly becoming more aware of the limits that still exist.


16 Comments

  1. M says:

    actually I have exactly same experience right now from Beijing, I noticed last friday or thursday that except one semi-permanent food stand all 4-5 others on usual corner suddenly went missing, so i just thought there was some inspection or police raid as hapenned before and next working day they will be back, but how was my surprise when I didn’t find them 2nd, 3rd and 4th day in row, so I really don’t know what happened and now I can’t buy my favourite fresh roujiamo from married couple which was preparing everything, even fresh bread and same with my other favourite food stand with seller who is doing little bit burned jian bing as I like and I don’t need to tell her that I want it spicy (unliky all chinese, who can’t handle spicy meals as me laowai).

    I’m just sad that I don’t know what happened to them, where they are making business now, because there is no replacement instead of them except permanent food stand which belongs to some chain (these food stands appeared suddenly at same time in many places of Beijing) which I don’t want to support, because I will rather give my money to some tricycle sellers who are hard working, so only other option is brave guy with his tricycle who was back immediately with his jidan bing (egg muffin with meat and salad, not jian bing which is crepe with that crunchy plate of chips) so I started to buy at least something from him occasionally but can’t eat it every day 😦

    if I knew they are gone for good I would leave them at least big tip for good breakfast, thank them and said goodbye, but they are just gone, so I hope they will reappear in 1-2 weeks as one colleague told me, while I never experienced more than 1 day absence since I’m in China, except Spring festival of course 😦

  2. Lorin Yochim says:

    This post interests me because it present an interesting dilemma with respect to the competing interests often on display in the foreigners-on-China blogs. First, the posts/comments often tear apart the Chinese government for problems of health (i.e., pollution, inspection standards, etc.). Second, they (more often) rip the government for its oppression of the livelihoods (and other rights, of course) of many of the “small potatoes” that we engage with in our daily lives. In the post today, we see these two interests opposed.

    @M, do you think that the bing seller keeps the spicy stuff there specifically for laowai, or just for you? Don’t answer if you don’t feel like it. Sometimes I type things too hastily, too.

    • M says:

      sorry, I’ve seen enough kitchens in local restaurants to know that street food has same cleanliness or even better because I know ingredients and see how it’s prepared while I never experienced “health inspection” or police raid in those restaurants unlike street hawkers

      no, they don’t keep it for me, but when I’m waiting for my jian bing in queue I see what amount are giving to chinese and how much I am getting and same with eating in restaurants, it was pretty same in Thailand with so-called spicy thai cuisine, where I ate from same pots as locals in local places and was always complaining it’s not spicy enough and had to empty a lot of bowls of spices in front of staring owners/waitresses

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        On your first point, I agree. Of course the inspections are as much about licensing, taxes, and exerting control over what business is done where (and associated optics) as it is about maintaining healthy conditions. Still, we’d be kidding ourselves to think that the government is not interested in keeping the population healthy.

        On the second point, the less said the better. Let’s just say I love my bing as much as the next person.

    • Kev says:

      True enough. Many of the restaurants have the same level of hygiene . The difference in my city is that both the street vender and the restaurants can be equally guilty of using “street oil” (oil extracted from the gutters). The difference is that the street vender doesn’t have the cash to pay off the government inspector.

  3. Lao Why? says:

    @ Lorin
    i had the same thought that you did except I don’t think the criticism is made exclusively by laowai.
    All countries struggle with unlicensed vendors and this is clearly a dilemma that goes beyond China’s borders. I recall being in a night market in Taipei, leisurely walking down the street, looking at goods for sale laid out on blankets and tasting the hawker food. All of a sudden there was a noise and within 15 seconds, all vendors had disappeared and then seconds later two police strolled down the cleansed street where seconds earlier you would have seen a panoply of merchandise and foods.

    While I have sympathy for the food sellers, would we feel the same about the ubiquitous dvd sellers at every subway exit who sell pirated dvds? What about the business that must shut down because its production process pollutes the air?

    It’s a matter of society making choices. And who gets to make those choices.
    I would add, however, that my impression is that to get fully licensed to do business in China often involves lots of bureaucracy and the potential for graft is high. Again, not too different from a lot of other countries including many in the eurozone. At this moment, the US is in a philosophical discussion over the Obama’s heavy handed approach on regulating many industries, creating rules that make it difficult to do business.

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      No disagreement with any of your points, except maybe for the bit about Obama’s responsibility, but that’s an argument for another blog. Also, your point about which vendors we like and which not makes the point I was digging at better than I did. As foreigners, we tend to hang ourselves on our own contradictions in condemning this and not that. Also, I’m not quite with you on equivalence of tiny proprietorship and an air polluting business, though. I don’t have much problem getting behind the former. The latter no so much.

      • Lao Why? says:

        Since I am here in Beijing, I have no sympathy for polluting business either. Just trying to illustrate the public policy continuum of choices.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        Hit reply too quick. What’s your feeling on the explosion of car ownership in Beijing? My very subjective take is that when I first experienced the place, there were many smoke stacks still operating throughout the core. Those have slowly disappeared. Surely the private vehicles have reversed many of the gains of getting rid of the factories. Not sure the official breakdown is on contributors. Without going into it too deeply, given what I used to see ten years ago, I don’t have a lot of trouble believing that things have improved. In fact, things have obviously gotten better (in terms of visible pollution anyway) in the places I’ve lived.

  4. Lao Why? says:

    Not to many smokestacks visible anymore inside the 3rd Ring. Still the AQI hit 390 today. Seems highly dependent on wind (I know, ‘duh’).
    I have been here almost 5 years and it is difficult to say if it has improved. It seems that in the last year, Beijing has had more extremes than prior years, either very good (AQI less than 100) or very bad (over 300). Just my impression.

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      The one plant I remember was east of Guomao. I’m not sure if it’s still tucked in there in the shadow of…whatever that project is called by Dawanglu Station. Looking on google maps, the power station might still be there. Maybe it’s cleverly semi-hidden. In Beijing’s case, the growth of the city in absolute terms and especially the private vehicles makes the picture hard to figure. I’m not aware of the history of monitoring in Beijing. In Shijiazhuang (Hebei) there was a very public electronic billboard as far back as 2002 that displayed real time pollution stats, including noise pollution. I think it’s gone now. On a side note, I find the pollution monitoring activities of the U.S. embassy in this regard curious from a diplomatic perspective, which isn’t to say there might not be some desirable effects. Imagine the Chinese embassy in Washington monitoring some politically sensitive aspect of daily life there. My imagination is running wild with absolutely no idea of what this might be. Perhaps something around race and education.

  5. Lao Why? says:

    Since when is pollution politically sensitive? Even so, does not the US embassy have the right to publish such statistics for the protection of its citizens in China. If the Chinese government wants to surpress this information in the name of social harmony, they can block the site (which they do).

    By the way, if the Chinese embassy wants to publish statistics on US race and education, have at it. Even better how about a picture of a cash register with dollars falling out each minute to represent the ever mounting deficit? Homeless statistics might be good. I doubt that they will publish anything that the US public hasn’t already seen or been able to obtain from some other source.

    The reality is that the access to this information along with the simple act of looking and breathing has finally caused Beijing and other cities to start reporting 2.5 micron information. Although yesterday’s comparative readings (before the late afternoon rain came) had at one point the following:
    US Embassy: 397 (high end of Hazardous range)
    Beijing Bureau: 137 (slightly polluted)
    Of course differences in measuring location can explain some of the discrepancy. But this is a big gap.

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      I suppose it’s always politically sensitive, but especially so in Beijing. What I meant is that it’s a curious thing for an embassy to engage in. I don’t how they justify it, but we can be sure that the purpose has little to do with public service. Or maybe they see it as a service to their expat residents. At any rate, if China did start reporting on those kinds of statistics in the U.S., we would quite rightly see through the political purposes. As to the reasons for reporting air pollution, that was my reason for talking about Shijiazhuang 10 years ago.

  6. M says:

    speaking about access to information, it would be nice if american embassy set up at least one web cam monitoring their surroundings because rellay in 2012 there is no single webcam where you could watch live transmission of streets of Beijing, while traffic cameras are every few meters

  7. Kev says:

    Most street venders are illegal in China so they stay at home to avoid trouble.

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