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What are the Chinese waiting for?

By Yu Fei China Features)

As a country with the most population in the world, China is undergoing a census 10 years after the last one shows it has more than 1.3 billion people.

But people don’t have to wait too long in order to get a sense of how heavily populated this country has been. A visit to the ongoing Shanghai World Expo could not be more impressed by the seemingly endless queuing.

Visitors to the Shanghai World Expo are either waiting here or waiting there. All the popular pavilions are surrounded by queues where you can hardly see the end.

The cost of viewing a 10-minute movie at the Saudi Arabian Pavilion, which has the largest IMAX screen in the world, is waiting in line for four or five hours. The longest waiting record was nine hours.

A Chinese netizen joked, “The furthest distance in the world is neither between life and death nor between the stars, but from the tail of the queue to the gate of Saudi Arabian Pavilion.”

To sociologist Sheng Banghe with the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, the Chinese people obtained limited resources of living necessities through the rule of queuing during the era of the planned economy. Now the Chinese continue to queue in face of the limited exhibition resources at the Shanghai Expo.

“But what Chinese are pursuing is no longer at the material level, but at the spiritual level. They are not satisfied with their current knowledge and entertainment,” said Sheng.

Xia Xueluan, a professor with the Department of Sociology of Peking University, said “the attraction of exotic cultures combined with the Chinese people’s occasional-vanity and group psychology could explain why so many people could bear the great physical and psychological challenges of queuing.”

The Chinese people’s craze for IMAX movies was triggered when Hollywood blockbuster "Avatar" was shown early this year. Since there are very few IMAX theatres across the country, an IMAX ticket was as precious and difficult to get as a train ticket during the Spring Festival, the most important reunion holiday for Chinese when billions of passengers were travelling around.. Thousands of moviegoers, with some wrapping themselves in cotton quilts, queued in the cold all night outside the only IMAX theatre in Shanghai.

“This was the first time that the Chinese queued for entertainment instead of food or train tickets. It’s great progress in society,” a netizen commented.

“Actually, before the arrival of ‘Avatar’, the Chinese had already started to advocate personalized spiritual preferences. Some people queued for the new Harry Potter movies and books, some queued for Transformers toys, and some queued for precious stamps and souvenir coins,” said Ding Chun, a professor with the School of Economics of Fudan University.

For many Chinese, the most impressive memory of queues dated back to the planned economy time. The supply of food and other necessities of life could not meet people’s demands from the 1950s to 1980s. The governments then issued ration coupons for almost everything. Queues could be seen everywhere from shops to restaurants.

Wang Zhongmin, 63, still remembered that he always queued for his family when he was a teenager to buy rice or soap. “Even to buy matches you had to queue, because each customer was only allowed to buy 10 boxes one time. No mater how much money you had, the shop assistant would not sell you more, unless you queued again.”

“Whenever I saw a queue on the street I had a conditioned response to queue, because I knew that there must be something my family needed,” Wang said.

Wang couldn’t forget how he was asked to buy meat for the family before the Spring Festival in 1962. He got out of bed at three o’clock before dawn, but he was disappointed to find more than 200 people had already queued outside the food shop.

Seeing how those standing in the front happily bought meat after the shop opened in the morning, Wang waited anxiously. When he moved closer to the counter, he heard buyers in the front begging the seller “Please sell me some lean meat if the fat one is sold out. Even some bones are good.”

“Even the bones were sold out before my turn. I felt I was in despair at that moment. I couldn’t forget the disappointment in my mother’s eyes when I arrived home empty handed,” Wang said.

The long queues in front of shops became fewer in China with the accumulation of material wealth since the 1980s. However, in recent years queues came again in other places such as banks, hospitals, railway stations, schools, job markets and offices of real estate agents.

Compared with the queues Wang was in for everyday necessities, today Chinese people are queuing for totally different reasons: they queue in pursuit of more benefits and guarantees for a better life.

Fang Jian, a foreign company staff in Beijing, said she always developed a headache when she had to queue for about one hour in banks to pay her telephone or electricity bill. “Whenever I was free during noon breaks or on weekends, there were always a lot of people waiting in banks.”

Long queues in banks have become a prominent phenomenon lately, as Chinese citizens’ financial needs increased. The bank is no longer a place for people to save or withdraw money only. People go to banks to buy funds, bonds, and other wealth management products, pay various bills, or get mortgage . All these complicated services take much more time than before.

“In the old days, the trouble with the queue was brought on by a lack of wealth. But now it is caused by having more money,” Fang said.

Although most people find queues annoying, their life quality has been kept improving amidst anxious waiting in line.

Thirty-three-year old Li Jianmin working in media in Beijing has been planning on buying an apartment for three years. He chose one in a new residential area in the southern suburb of Beijing recently. He went to the housing sales office three hours before the sale began on July 31, one of the hottest days in Beijing.

But to his surprise, nearly 2,000 people, all soaked with sweat, had already queued in an area no larger than a basketball court in front of the housing sales office. Only 400 apartments were available. Soon the two-bedroom and one-bedroom apartments were sold out.

“Not all the houses were sold so quickly. But those affordable one for ordinary people are in critical shortage,” Li said.

China’s housing prices have skyrocketed in recent years, as many rich people invest in the sector. But those like Li who really need houses have limited choices. China’s baby boomers born during 1962 to 1980 entered their golden time of life, and housing has become one of their prime needs.

“The real estate developers should not seek only profits and build houses for wealthy people only. The government should also launch policies encouraging construction of affordable housing for ordinary citizens,” Li said.

Among all the queues in China, the most criticized ones are in hospitals and railway stations. In Beijing’s large hospitals, it’s a common scene that patients or their relatives queue all night to register to see expert doctors.

Zhao Xin, father of a three-year-old girl from Zhangjiakou city in north China’s Hebei Province, stayed in a hotel near Beijing Children’s Hospital so he could get up at three o’clock in the morning and queue for an appointment with an expert doctor to have his ill daughter examined and cured.

“I believe Beijing’s doctors must be better than those in my hometown. But it’s too difficult to see an expert. If only there were more experts,” said Zhao. .

People’s need to queue has resulted in a new business emerging in China. Usually called an “errand company” or “domestic services company”, they provide “queue for you” serviceswith prices floating along with the market conditions.

An employeefrom Beijing Feifei Errand Company who declined to give his name said the price is 200 yuan (about 30 U.S. dollars) for one-night queuing in hospitals, and 350 yuan (51.5 U.S. dollars) for queuing for 24 hours.

“Although those ‘queuing workers’ can bring convenience for some people in exchange of their labor, I still think it’s a gray job and improper because it violates the rule of fairness. It also shows that China has a shortage of social service resources,” said sociologist professor Xia Xueluan.

“Waiting in lines could cause a sense of pressure. If the waiting time is too long, people will feel anxious, which is unhealthy psychologically and will weaken people’s sense of happiness,” said Xia.

“The queuing phenomenon exists in every economic system as long as resources are in short supply, and social supplies cannot meet the social demand. If the shortage is caused by insufficient productivity, then accelerating development and increasing supply are the key solution to the problem of queuing,” Xia said.

“The solution to the queues at Shanghai World Expo and the solution to queues for healthcare, education and so on are two entirely different things” said Fudan University professor Ding Chun.

According to economic theories, queues could be solved by increasing supply and improving efficiency. The launch of the “online Expo” is one way of increasing exhibition resources. Employing more ushers, encouraging visits at night and setting up queue guardrails are measures to improve efficiency, said Ding.

“However, the solution to queues in the fields of healthcare, education, transportation and employment are very complicated and is dealt with the formulation of public service policies,” Ding said.

Sociologists believe many current queuing problems in the healthcare, housing, education, transportation and financial sectors are caused by insufficient public service resources.

Unbalanced public resources, combined with trade monopolies and a lack of competition and service awareness of governmental departments, make the queuing problem more prominent, said Ma Zhihui, director of the Institute of Economics under the Jiangxi Provincial Academy of Social Sciences.

The problems have caught the attention from the government. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said in this year’s government work report that major problems in the areas of healthcare, education, housing, income distribution and public administration urgently require solutions.

He promised the government will vigorously ensure and improve people’s well being and will try every means to increase employment, improve the social security system, promote the steady and sound development of the real estate market, and accelerate the reform and development of the pharmaceutical and healthcare fields.


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