Shanghai Street View: Sweeping Soldiers

Shanghai street sweepers need redeployment

I must admit I have little interest in or time for the legions of workers who regularly sweep up the dust and litter on Shanghai’s many streets. Perhaps part of the reason is snobbery, although I don’t have any particular bad feelings for these actual workers, whose trademark pastel blue smocks with florescent yellow stripes makes them hard to miss.

Instead, my lack of interest in these sweepers is mostly because they represent a lingering relic of China’s wasteful and inefficient socialist past, where keeping people employed was more important than actual productivity.

So I was quite surprised when I was unexpectedly moved by a recent local news report that put a human face to these workers. That doesn’t mean that I approve of this kind of work, as I still think it sends a bad signal that simply giving people jobs is reason enough to spend taxpayer money when there are much better uses for such funds.

The story that caught my attention appeared in an edition of the Oriental Morning Post, whose article was centered on the sixth anniversary of a program aimed at bringing younger people into the city’s system of street sweepers.

The story featured a photo of several young sweepers dressed in their trademark blue garb, one pushing a metal wheelbarrow for garbage collection and each clasping one of their trademark bamboo-handled brooms.  All the workers looked happy enough, with most flashing modest smiles that looked real even as they evoked images of propaganda posters from a previous era.

But what caught my interest was the profile of one worker profiled in the article, a young man who was just 20 when he joined the program in 2007, and the difficulty he faced in his decision to become a sweeper. The man, surnamed Liu, described the insecurity he felt on taking such a job after graduating from school with loftier dreams of playing soccer.

I was surprisingly moved  by his description of the near shame that he felt the first time he showed up for work and had to take off his jacket and blue jeans and put on the blue smock that he and all of his colleagues have to wear. I was similarly moved by his recollection of the insecurity he felt on meeting his future wife, a clothing store worker, who accepted him for who he was and didn’t care about the status of his profession.

Perhaps I’ve lived in China a bit too long, as this kind of story has all the elements of the kind of melodramas that many Chinese love and are a staple on local TV shows. But it did certainly humanize these sweepers that are everywhere on Shanghai’s city streets, and also showed the kinds of pressures they face due to their relatively low status.

All that said, I still have to return to my original point, namely that Liu and others like him could be put to better use, and that the job of street sweepers in general should be retired to the rubbish bin of Chinese labor history.

Rather than sweeping streets that could easily be cleaned by automated machines, Liu could use his soccer skills in after-school programs for the thousands of neglected children of migrant workers in Shanghai. Similarly, the legions of people who now work as street sweepers and traffic assistants could help in programs that provide assistance to the elderly by bringing them meals and medicine and helping them shop. Those jobs can’t be done by machines, and are jobs where these people could truly make a difference.

One of my earliest memories of living in China during the 1980s is the street sweepers that plied the streets of Beijing at the time, each equipped with a bamboo-handled broom fitted with a tightly bound bundle of dried bamboo leaves. My foreign friends and I often joked that these sweepers, mostly older women with short-cropped hair, created more mess than they actually cleaned up, since their sweeping usually produced big clouds of dust that ultimately settled on everything nearby.

While I look back on those memories with a certain fondness, I really do think it’s time that Shanghai and other major cities seriously considered eliminating these street sweepers and other jobs that seem more designed to keep people working than anything else. I think it’s great that people like Liu can find pleasure and fulfillment in these jobs, though I also think these same people could find similar and possibly bigger rewards in other vocations.

In place of those jobs, the city could put these people to better use through new programs that are truly needed in one of China’s fastest-changing urban environments, improving life for many in the city by providing services to the underprivileged and those living on limited income.

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