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Migrant worker’s tale of inequality grips China, then is erased

BEIJING — He visited 28 places in the first 18 days of 2022, including a puppet theater, a few luxury residential compounds and a shopping mall in the heart of China’s equivalent of Silicon Valley.

A migrant worker, who revealed a parallel universe to well-off Chinese, became a symbol of inequality that the Chinese government had to erase.

A migrant worker, who revealed a parallel universe to well-off Chinese, became a symbol of inequality that the Chinese government had to erase.

BEIJING — He visited 28 places in the first 18 days of 2022, including a puppet theater, a few luxury residential compounds and a shopping mall in the heart of China’s equivalent of Silicon Valley.

He didn’t go to any of these places for fun. He was often there in the wee hours when they were deserted, to unload concrete and sand from trucks that weren’t allowed in the city until after midnight. He would be gone before day broke.

The migrant worker, surnamed “Yue”, toiled in obscurity until he tested positive for Covid-19 and authorities released the extensive details of his movements. After that, he became known as the hardest working person in China.

He was a symbol of the inequalities that are invisible to most middle-class Chinese people, the migrant workers who sweep the streets, pick up the trash and keep big metropolises gleaming. He was also an inconvenient truth to a government that prefers celebrating its success in eradicating extreme poverty, rather than acknowledging the large part of the population still struggling for a better life.

Many social media users contrasted his itineraries with that of another Covid-19 case in Beijing, a young employee at a big state-owned bank. In the first 10 days of the year, she visited four shopping malls, made a purchase at a French luxury store, saw a talk show and went skiing.

The two have become the faces of the haves and the have-nots who live in the same cities but exist in parallel universes.

Some people compared Mr Yue to characters in movies like “The Matrix” and “Parasite” who operate between different realities and social economic classes.

“We live in broad daylight; he in the dead of night,” Mr Bambi Lin, a Beijing resident, wrote on his timeline on the social media platform WeChat. “We live above the ground; he under the ground.”

China’s top leader, Mr Xi Jinping, declared in February 2021 that the country had won “a complete victory” in its fight against extreme poverty, calling it a “miracle” that would “go down in history”.

In a nearly 9,000-word speech, Mr Xi listed many of the government’s achievements, with many numbers, in reducing poverty. Left out was any mention of how many Chinese were still living in poverty and how China calculated the poverty line.

Beijing doesn’t like the public to talk about poverty or the country’s drastically inadequate social safety net. Gut-wrenching stories about the poor are often recast with a positive state media spin or are censored outright.

Mr Yue upended the government’s narrative. The Chinese internet was gripped by his work schedule and the back story that led him to a tough life in the country’s capital — a missing son, a bedridden father and indifferent local authorities.

“Many people weren’t born to be unfortunate,” wrote @jiayoumobao on the social media platform Weibo. “If anybody was willing to give him a hand, he might not have to endure all those hardships. But nobody, none, has extended him a single finger.”

Online users questioned the government’s claim of eradicating poverty and its use of taxpayers’ money. Instead of building a world-class surveillance system that monitors every move of its people, some said, the government could have spent the money on building a social safety net that catches its poor when they’re falling.

China is among the most unequal in the world. It has more billionaires than the United States, India and Germany combined. The top 10 per cent there controls 68 per cent of the country’s wealth, compared with about six per cent by the bottom 50 per cent, according to the World Bank.

A large portion of the 1.4 billion Chinese remain poor. About 600 million people, or 40 per cent of the country’s population, live on about US$150 a month or less.

As does Mr Yue’s family.

Born in 1978 in the central province of Henan, Mr Yue left his village to seek a better life in the city. He and his family settled down in Weihai, a coastal city in eastern Shandong province, and he became a fisherman.

Mr Yue and his wife had a happy family. Their first son was born in 2000. Ten years later, they had a second son, paying about US$1,500 for breaking the one-child policy.

“As peasants, we didn’t earn much,” his wife, Ms Li Suying, said. “But we were doing fine because we were frugal.” She posted an online photo album on her WeChat timeline in 2016 that was titled “A loving family”. She does many low-paid seafood-related odd jobs while taking care of the family.

Then, their elder son, then 19, went missing in August 2020. Mr Yue and Ms Li went to the local police station and begged the officers for help finding him by locating his cellphone and checking surveillance video footage.

Police ignored their plea and berated them when they refused to give up, according to both Ms Li and Mr Yue’s interviews with Chinese media. One officer told Ms Li to “shut up” and “get lost,” she said. They ignored her when she cried for days outside the police station.

“It wasn’t like I lost something that I could give up,” she said. “He’s my son.”

Mr Yue set out looking for their son on his own. He went to many cities, including Beijing, where their son once worked at a restaurant. He did whatever odd jobs he could find along the way.

The family’s financial situation deteriorated, as did their mood. They borrowed thousands of dollars from relatives last year. Ms Li said she was too traumatised and enraged to fall asleep. Mr Yue’s hair went gray.

After the couple petitioned authorities in the provincial and national capitals, Ms Li said, local police told them last summer that the body of an unidentified young man was their son’s.

They refused to accept it because the police wouldn’t show them the results of DNA tests. Neither could the police produce anything that used to belong to their son. “His ID card, cellphone, clothes or bag,” she said. “Nothing.”

Mr Yue went back to Beijing last November to look for his son. Mostly he found work carrying construction materials.

A bag of concrete is 66 pounds. A bag of sand is 110 pounds (50kg). “Carrying one bag to the ground floor is 16 cents,” he told the official China News Weekly magazine. “Carrying to the third floor times three. The fourth floor times four.”

He made more than US$1,500 in more than 40 days, renting a room of about 100 square feet for about US$100 a month in one of the city’s biggest slums.

“I’ve been working as hard as I can to get our son back,” Mr Yue told the magazine. “I’ll find him even if I have to lose my life.”

Like many people in rural China, the couple provided for Mr Yue’s parents. His father is bedridden and his mother broke her arm last winter. Each month, he gives his parents about US$315, which they spend on medications for heart problems and high blood pressure.

“He worked, petitioned and looked for our son,” Ms Li said. “Then he got Covid-19.”

Mr Yue couldn’t be reached, and Ms Li declined to provide his full name.

Before Mr Yue, other people in extreme poverty captivated the nation’s attention. There was the “ice boy” who showed up at school one winter morning with frost covering his hair, eyebrows and eyelashes after a trek of more than an hour.

There was the college student who weighed less than 50 pounds (23kg) and stood at 4 feet, 5 inches tall from malnutrition; she later died.

Their stories touched off an outpouring of sympathy and donations, but the attention faded as the public had few outlets to push for policy change, like electing officials who represented their views.

With Mr Yue, even the public’s soul-searching was cut short after the online discussions raised too many uncomfortable questions for Beijing.

The widely circulated interview that the official China News Weekly magazine conducted with him was censored on WeChat for “violating operating rules” of the platform. Hashtags such as #thehardestworkingchineseincovidtracing# were censored on Weibo “according to the relevant laws, regulations and policies”.

In a statement Jan 21, the local police office said it had done everything it could to help find their son and the body’s DNA tests matched theirs. Authorities said that the couple refused to accept the conclusion but the police, along with the local government and the Communist Party branch, would take good care of them.

Several cars had been parked outside their rental bungalow for days, Ms Li said. They followed her when she went out to pick up delivery parcels or shop for groceries. Journalists were stopped from visiting her.

“If they are being truthful, why are they so afraid of journalists visiting me?” Ms Li said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Related topics

China poverty economic inequality

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