Is It Necessary to Keep the "Iron Rice Bowl"?
Living Without the "Iron Rice Bowl"
Since 1987, reform of the Chinese labour system has
stepped out of the laboratory and into the real world of employment. For
many, the " iron rice bowl " no longer exlsts. The " iron
rice bowls " - a Chinese euphemism for government-assigned secure
jobs that had been cherished for more than 30 years - were shattered.
No accurate figure was available on how many workers
have been laid off so far. But scattered reports offer a glimpse of the
scope of unemployment.
In 1987, State-owned enterprises in Hubei Province laid
off 14, 000 workers. Last summer, 30, 000 people in Shanghai were
receiving unemployment pensions.
The inauguration of a labour market at the Shenyang
Steel Pipes Factory in Liaoning Province went unheraldedno firecrackers,
no marching band, no bursts of applause. Instead of gaiety, weeping was
heard at the perimeter of a small crowd of about 50 people witnessing the
Except for a few officials sitting at tables on the
platform, everyone at the meeting had been laid off at the end of a
work.optimization programme. They included labourers, cadres, technicians,
Communist Party members, and even university graduates. The saddest were
the eight ex-cadres who lost their executive jobs.
Zhao yusheng, 46, was Party secretary of the No 2
workshop of the factory before he was laid off. He found another job on
the labour market, loading and unloading trucks. He once served in the
army and participated in battles. But this turn of events made him cry.
"For more than 20 years I had been doing what the
Party asked me to do, " he said. "Now on the labour market I
find I do not have any skills. I can only become a truck loader."
For more than 30 years, unemployment in China has been
regarded as an evil which labour planners have tried to avoid at all
The planners were once quite complacent about the
solution--the "iron rice bowl". They were confident that a
policy of "low salaries and broad employment" would end
unemployment in China forever.
But the " iron rice bowl " system was a
dead-end. Reluctantly,the planners.looked for another way.And even though
it would cause pain and difficulties,they recommended
a system that would permit laying off incompetent staff. That, they felt,
would increase efficiency and give ailing enterprises a new lease on life.
For workers affected, lay-off is a bitter pill which
some simply cannot swallow.
For more than 30 years, Chinese people have felt totally secure in their
jobs. Now they are facing the possibility of losing their jobs, and many
have reacted with panic and horror.
Fu Gangzhan, director of the Economic Development
Research Institute of the East China University of Chemistry, has studied
China's labour problems for many years.
Two summers ago Fu and his colleagues conducted a survey of several
thousand workers and entrepreneurs in Shanghai. Their purpose was to
unveil the reality of unemployment in China.
During the same period, economics professor Tao Zhaipu
of the Zhongshan University in Guangzhou was also studying the employment
actualities in China.
They came to the same conclusion almost at the same
time: unemployment exists and has always existed in China. They found that
there was a core of unemployed numbering
between 15 million to 25 million people in the country. This range is
almost the same as the entire populations of Australia and Canada.
Ulike unemployment in developed countries, unemployment
in China is generally hidden from view.
The State spends 50 to 60 billion yuan ( $16.5 to $
18.9 billion ) each year in the form of salaries, bonuses and other
benefits supporting "iron rice bowl" workers who never actually
earn a penny for their employers. This expenditure accounts
for about 50 per cent of the profits handed over to the State by all the
enterprises in the country.
Read the following passages. Underline the important
viewpoints while reading.
1. Breaking the "Iron Rice Bowl"
In his effort to repair the damage of 30 lost
years,Deng Xiaoping is abolishing what is called the "iron rice
bowl" or "big-pot system", which guaranteed that workers
and peasants shared equal rewards regardless of their contribution. In its
place, he has introduced "production responsibility", which
links remuneration to individual effort.
The dramatic impact of these reforms is most evident in
rural China, home to more than 80 percent of the country's 1.1 billion
people. A visit to a township outside Wuxi tells the story. The commune
there, like most throughout China, has been dismantled. Instead of being
assigned to jobs by a team leader and drawing equal shares from a common
revenue pool as in the gast, the peasants contract to work a piece of land
and to deLiver a quota of products to the state at a fixed price.
What they produce above the quota they may keep for their own consumption
or sel.l in a free market. They also are encouraged to caltivate bigger
private plots and to engage in what are known as "sideline
activities" to augment their incomes. The result is that the average
household income has increased from about $ 225 a year to $ 350--$400. The
most enterprising can earn many times that sum.
Lauded in the Chinese press as a model for all to
follow is the chicken farmer who went into the egg business and amassed a
fortune sufficient to enable her to buy China's first privately owned car,
as well as two trucks for her enterprise.
Everywhere the evidence of rising affluence - in
Chinese terms-- is visible. In one town I visited, where hardly a new
house had been built for 30 years, nearly 90 percent of the families have
now moved into new accommodations. Most homes have radio-cassette players,
and a majority have television sets acquired in the past year or so. Less
than five years ago, such luxuries were unavailable.
In Nanjing, once the capital of the kouomintang
government, a visitor sees another.htmect of the personal incentive
system. Business booms in a free market of hundreds of .individually
operated stalls lining several narrow streets. On sale are vegetables,
fruits, chickens and live fish and eels. Buyers are many. Peasant
merchants charge what the market will bear and keep what money they get.
Are Communist leaders worried that all of this will
lead to the emergence
of a new class of rich peasants'? They insist they are not. "Some
peasants prosper early, others will prosper later," says one
official. I7eng puts it as a trickle-down theory: "Make some people
rich first s0 as to lead all people to wealth."
2. How It Feels to Be Out of Job
Xu Peihua, 26, was fired from her job at the Shanghai
No 5 Silk Knitting Factory in january 1987 after she became ill.
The community committce where Xu lived was supposed to
compensate her for 70 per cent of her medical expenses for one year after
she left the factory. But after a year, her illness got worse.
A Shanghai hospital refused Co take her in unless she
paid a deposit of 10,000 yuan. After much negotiation with the hospital,
she was taken in, after paying 5,000 yuan deposit.
Her problems were not over. Her unemployment insurance
expired and so she no longer received her 40-yuan monthly pension.She had
nowhere to go to get compensation for her hospital fees. Xu needed money
urgently, but no institutions would help.
Xu's former employer, the Shanghai No 5 Silk Knitting
Factory, said that their responsibility for her ended once she was fired.
So they refused to give a penny.
The Shanghai Labour Service Company, which has an
unemployment pension fund of 20 million yuan at its disposal, could not
help with the medical bills because Xu was no longer eligible for a
Neither could she receive assistance from the Shanghai
Municipal Bureau of Civil Affairs. Their welfare coverage extends to
divorced people, single seniors, homeless youngsters, relatives of martyrs
and soldiers in service, and disabled people. Xu did not fall into any of
these categories, so she did not qualify.
But not all jobless people share Xu's fate. A window
may shut, but a door may open. A number of unemployed people have made a
successful transition from "iron rice bowl" to working on their
own or for private business.
Li Chunying of t.he Shenyang Steel Pipes Factory was
one of the few university graduates who lost her job. She had only worked
there a year after she had graduated.
Before the reality of unemployment happened to her, she had only heard
ahout such situations in countries like the United States or Japan where
some university graduates, even a few with master's or doctor's degrees,
could not find a job. ln China, university graduates were highly sought by
For four months, Li rode around Shenyang on her bike
job-hunting. She wrote three examinations given by potential etnployers
and at last got a jub at a research institute that urgently needed
translators. It was a job she had long wanted and now was very happy to
As Li's case shows, losing a job doesn't necessarily
mean bad luck. It may even bring a better, more satisfying job.
3. Job Changing Becomes a Fashion
It used to be quite an embarrassing thing in China for
a person to be dismissed by his or her employer. But things are different
Take Beijing as an example. Many people now seek the
opportunity to be sacked.
Last year, some 14, 000 people succeeded in leaving their work places by
resigning or having their employers dismiss them. Many of them were the
backbone of their enterprises, including skilled workers and college
graduates just assigned to their work places.
Enterprise leaders hold that many things account for
the changing of jobs. Some people are not content with the situation in
their work units; some are attracted by the higher income of self-employed
workers and those who work for foreign interest- involved businesses.
A woman used to work for a commerce college as a
teacher in Beijing, but she found it more interesting to work for a
corporation as an office worker.
She said: "Satisfaction in my career is what I
Not all of those who left their work units find new
jobs instantly. They become frequent visitors to the labour market in the
capital. Some are lucky and are well received, but some are not,
especially those who do not have special professional skills.
It is not unusual for some people to
try to return to their original work units because they fail to find
suitable new jobs.
Some who quit enjoy a new success in their career. A
street pedlar said, "I just regret I left the factory too
late..." The pedlar wore a suit of Western-style clothes and
apparently is well-off now.
But another pedlar said that they earn money only
through hardship. "We suffer coldness in winter and heat in summer,
spending all day in open air." And he told a reporter that a pedlar
who worked near him had returned to his original work unit because he
found it too hard to be a self-employed worker.
The frequent change of jobs among employees represents
a challenge to the years-old job allocation system in China, revealing the
fact that people have begun to pay attention to their personal values and
have a sense of competition. The flow of personnel in the form of quitting
old jobs to find new ones cannot be stopped by mere administrative means.
Such a flow is inevitable in the development of a commodity economy.
The problem can only be solved by further reform.
4. A Traveling Man's Labour of Love
Born in the Year of the Monkey according to the Chinese
calender, Wang Haihe, 22, is considered by some people as having some of
the characteristics of monkeys, such as being lively, nimble and good at
Wang himself doesn't deny this, since he really can't
stand a tranquil and unchanging life. He has been busy moving about since
Now, only a few years later, he has parlayed his energy
and interests into a thriving travel business.
As early as when he was in primary school, he and his
family spent most of their holidays travelling to nearby mountain areas or
to scenic spots in Jiangxian County, Shanxi Province.
"Travelling has sometimes meant risk to me, and
several times I was on the verge of death when I climbed onto overhanging
cliffs," said Wang. "But this never stops me; in fact, it
By the time when Wang graduated from high school, he
had set foot on such famous mountains around the country as Taishan in
Shandong Province, Huashan in Shaanxi, Hengshan in Hebei and Songshan in
Henan. Of all the places he has been, he likes Mt. Huashan best. It is
considered one of the most precipitous and dramatic mountains in the
"I was there nine times," he said. "Each
time I reached the summit, I shouted with excitement."
But things went contrary to Wang's interests. He got a
job in the local Finance Bureau and worked as a clerk after he graduated
from high school.
"From some people's point of view it is a good
job, since it is easy, comfortable and safe, but for me it is
intolerable," said Wang.
After a few months, Wang quit his job, giving up
the"iron rice bowl" of security, and on October 1 last year he
opened a privatelyowned travel service, the first one in the province. It
aims at arousing people' s interest in travel and helps them arrange
tours, lodging, transportation, photo-taking, entrance tickets and so on.
From information he had collected from newspapers and
magazines, he learned that about 100, 000 people in the country every year
come to visit the Guandi Temple, the most convenient scenic spot from
"But very few people from the county came to the
place, not because they had been there, but because most people ltere had
no idea about travelling," said Wang. "Most of the youngsters
here would think it is a waste of money to travel and thcy spend most of
their money on food and clothes."?
Wang put advertisements along streets to draw the
iuterest of young pcuple.
"From the time I was very young, I dreamed of
touring the country's beautiful rivers and mountains," he said.
"When I am out in nature, I always feel relaxed and become
open-minded. Now that I have benefited a lot from travelling, I want more
people to sha re my feeling, and do my best to help them and make their
travel easier and more interesting."
After being in business only a week, Wang organized his
first group of youths --17 of tbem.
"The trip is exciting and really economical, ?said
one of the youngsters in the group. "We traveled to Mt. Huashan and
Xi'an in Shaanxi Province for three days, an.d each of us only spent 65
With good knowledge about the legends and historical
information about various sites, and having rich experience in arranging
trips, Wang soon won the trust of the local people. To his great
satisfaction, more and more people in the county have begun to show an
interest in travelling, and Wang's travel service has become very popular
among young people there.
"I am very happy with my work now. To me, the
'iron rice bowl' is actually an iron lock. I would rather live according
to my own de.ires and reaiize my full potential," he said.