A hero in his home village
Beijing is in the midst of an enormous building boom -- one of the most ambitious construction projects the world has ever seen. Cranes clutter its skyline. At more than 10,000 sites across the city, there is a total of 1.7 billion square feet of floor space under construction -- an area that, if laid out, would be nearly three times the size of Manhattan.
Construction is under way at more than 10,000 sites in Beijing.
Mr. Wei speaks proudly of his 18-year-old daughter Xiaowei, who lives with the rest of his family on a farm in Yushu county, in northeastern Jilin province. He says the girl is a good student and obedient. "We're not that close. I don't know what she likes," he says, awkwardly fingering a bunch of keys on his belt. A badge of prosperity among middle-age Chinese men, Mr. Wei's keys are a small vanity. He says he picked them up on the street. They are keys to things he doesn't have: a car, an apartment.
Like other construction workers, he lives frugally in the city. In his latest job he earns about $300 or so a month, but keeps only about $60 of it. The rest he sends home to the "3861 army" -- a term used to describe the women and children left behind in China's interior. (March 8 is China's Women's Day, June 1 Children's Day.)
Next to coal mining, construction work has the highest number of casualties in China, with 2,607 reported fatalities in 2005. Steel-tipped boots are rare. China's workers clamber around in thin canvas shoes, often without safety harnesses, and buy their own work gloves. Many of their hard hats are just thin plastic shells, sold for a dollar apiece.
Wang Qishan, the mayor of Beijing, said in a recent interview that he personally reviews construction accident statistics daily. "I can never be happy when I read such reports," he said. "Beijing can't do without these people." The city tries to provide services such as health care for registered migrant workers, but its resources are overstretched, he said.
Like many other construction workers, Mr. Wei entered the trade because there was little else to do on his family's farm, a small plot where corn and soybeans grow. He left home at 17 for a province next to Beijing.
When he was in his 20s, Mr. Wei's left little finger was sliced off by an electric saw. In 1994, he was hit on the head by a steel rod, landing him in the hospital for more than a month. He counts himself lucky because his employer paid for his medical bills. Construction is under way at more than 10,000 sites in Beijing.
An injured Chinese migrant worker.
China's state-controlled banks have poured credit into real estate, where many companies are politically connected. The easy money often leads to ill-conceived projects that quickly go bust. When financing collapses, construction workers -- the ones at the bottom of the totem pole -- aren't paid. They find it difficult to claim restitution because they often are employed indirectly through subcontractors.
Mr. Wei and his friends say they had no success appealing to authorities in Tongzhou. About 20 of the workers drifted home, defeated. With no money, Mr. Wei and the remaining workers were forced to make camp in the neighboring province of Hebei, eking out a living with odd jobs. They say they lived on steamed buns, mostly, six for one yuan, or about 13 cents.
In November 2005, more than 50 of them rose at dawn. They marched for five hours to central Beijing to appeal to authorities there. They wound up at Beijing's Legal Aid office on Qianmen West Street.
Wang Xuefa, the center's director, remembers the sight of Mr. Wei and his friends kneeling en masse on the office floor. "It was sad to see men brought so low," he says.
The Intermediate People's Court in Tongzhou ruled in the group's favor on Jan. 6, ordering the Hong Kong developer Lian Ka Fu International to pay more than $30,000 in back wages to the workers. They haven't seen a cent. Lian Ka Fu's proprietor, Wang Xiaohu, told the court she doesn't have the money, says Chang Mingchuan, a lawyer at Beijing Legal Aid. Ms. Wang couldn't be reached for comment, and her Europe American Art Gallery -- a green low-rise with gold Corinthian columns -- is now shuttered.
Going home for Chinese New Year, China's most important holiday, is a ritual for construction workers. It is the only time in the year they see their families. Like returning heroes, they are feted and tell tales of car-choked streets and the towering skyscrapers they helped build. "Some of my neighbors have not even taken a train," Mr. Wei says.
Back home, Mr. Wei is a man of substance. Over the years, his wages, which are higher than average among construction workers because of his bricklaying expertise, have helped his family enjoy some comforts. "We're very well respected in my home," he says.
Last January, however, Mr. Wei stayed in a Hebei flophouse instead of returning home for the new year holiday. Penniless, he and his friends were too ashamed to go. To cheer up, they went to an airfield and watched planes taking off.
"Really, that's the only time I felt like suicide. I thought if a car hit me, at least I can get some compensation," Mr. Wei says.
Reached by telephone, his wife, Ding Guiying, says it is a hard life taking care of Mr. Wei's aged parents, raising her daughter alone and tending the crops. Mr. Wei's wages nowadays go to pay for his daughter's secondary education -- which isn't free in China, even at public schools. Ms. Ding says the bill comes to around $1,300 a year.
Ms. Ding, 42, hopes her husband can come home when their daughter has finished school. "We keep being separated for such a long time, and I can hardly count how many days we've been together in the past 19 years," she says.
Mr. Wei spent most of this year in Hebei, the province surrounding Beijing. In May, he and his friends found a job at a residential site. Mr. Wei roomed in a wooden shack with 10 other workers. The floor was a brick-and-dirt mixture. The only running water was from a sink in the courtyard. The toilet was a shed with wooden planks over a hole. In the kitchen, flies clustered thickly.
In Hebei, as is common on such jobs, Mr. Wei paid his employer about 60 cents daily for three meals, mostly rice and tofu. Meat was rare, but he is a vegetarian. Growing up poor, he never got used to the taste of meat.
One of the crew, Yang Xinguo, 53, injured his leg in a traffic accident and had to stop working in September. After lingering for a while, hoping to get compensation from the art-gallery job, he decided to go home in mid-November. He had a few dollars earned before the accident and $50 or so that Mr. Wei and other friends gave him.
"We will send your pay to you, once we get it," promised Mr. Wei, sitting on Mr. Yang's bed. He offered his departing friend a cigarette. Through the smoke, Mr. Yang's eyes shimmered. "Men don't want to cry, but we have cried many times," he said.
By late November, Mr. Wei and his crew had moved back to Beijing. They found better work building the 28-story, four-star hotel. Conditions are cleaner. Mr. Wei now lives in barracks perched next to the yawning site. He has 10 roommates, including some new ones. There is no canteen, so they cook in the room, using a gas ring attached to a five-foot canister next to Mr. Wei's bed.
With no heating, they sleep in their jackets, and sometimes hats and gloves, too. Temperatures can drop below zero Fahrenheit in Beijing's winter. Some have electric blankets they bought for about $1.25 each.
They are creative with their limited space, rolling back their bedrolls and using the boards beneath as makeshift tables. The cook, Wen Fenglin, adroitly uses the space to chop cabbages and peel onions, ladling water from an old paint bucket to clean the food and utensils. The 55-year-old used to work on the crew but now is employed by the construction company to cook. "Boss said I have to learn because I'm too old to do heavy work," he says, browning onions for an omelet.
There are no washing facilities, so baths and clean clothes are treats. Mr. Wei remembers taking a bath well more than a month ago at a bathhouse, paying about 60 cents.
With no laundry, Mr. Wei buys secondhand clothes, wearing them until they get too dirty. Currently, his favorite is a gray cotton shirt he bought for a little more than a dollar, which looks as if it once might have belonged to a corporate executive. "I normally throw away the clothes after wearing, but maybe I'll sell this. In about 10 days," he says.
Around Beijing's small alleyways, an underground economy caters to construction workers. Vendors often do their business by barter because the workers don't have space to keep much and adopt a throwaway culture. One popular item is underwear with zippered pockets, to keep money and valuables close.
Mr. Wei's pace of work is now frenetic. The hotel still is just a big hole in the ground. Under city ordinances, concrete trucks from the hundreds of factories ringing the city are allowed in the city center only after 11 p.m. and on weekends, so he and his friends must work long past midnight curing concrete. Once the hotel's foundation is done, in about two months, Mr. Wei says the plan is to build a floor every five days.
On the next-to-last day of November, Mr. Wei and his comrades crowded into a small postal outlet, their grimy appearance setting them apart from other customers. The air smelled of unwashed clothes, and some people edged away.
It was exactly a year since they had made their long march to the Beijing Legal Aid office. Mr. Wei had given up hope of recovering his lost wages, but on this day the mood was celebratory. It was payday, and the men wanted to mail their money home. There was a flurry of bewilderment as they fumbled with forms. Mr. Wei, his eyes red-rimmed after a 24-hour shift, helped some of the workers who can't write well fill out the forms.
Zhang Tao, 20, in a paint-stained blue sweater and matted hair, slowly scrawled the amount he is sending home: 900 yuan, or about $115. He said he earns 1,000 yuan, or $128, a month.
On another night, Mr. Wei took a walk, wandering around the city's glittering towers and looming cranes. "I have no regrets," he said. "I'm the migrant worker who stays out all year so home is better. I've seen things my neighbors have never imagined -- 50-story buildings, planes so big they can carry hundreds."
He stopped in front of a European five-star hotel near his work site. "I build these things, but I have never been inside," he said.
Timidly, he pushed the swing door and went in.