Beggar vs. musician

I’ve had plenty of subway commuting time lately to reflect on the different treatments beggars and “beggar musicians” receive from strangers. Why does the average Beijinger so disdain one and admire the other? Read my take here or on China Daily:

Last week, Chinese and American bureaucracy conspired to force me into making several trips to Haidian district, where my family’s hukou is still based. As far as the government is concerned, I’m still a resident of Beijing’s scrappy west side, and not its chic eastern half. So, whenever I need anything “official” done, I set off on a 20-kilometer trek across town.

The journey by subway or taxi is impossibly tedious, takes well over an hour, and leaves me intoxicated with car fumes or other people’s body odor. But this time, I noticed something else.

Now that the weather is welcomingly warm, the beggars, and the “beggar-musicians,” have returned to their posts.
In the dead of winter, there were no pitiful faces haunting the side windows of taxis. By early spring, a few brave souls started staking out major intersections and pacing the length of subway cars. This month, it’s back to business as legions of mendicants and musicians roam Beijing, relieving me of yuan after yuan.

I’m a former student of economics, so I understand incentives and know the rational arguments against giving money to those who beg. But I can’t help it. I’m a sucker for a sad sight.
There are three types in particular that I can’t seem to say “no” to: 1) elderly women with brown lined faces, 2) anyone with a moderate disability, and 3) long-haired hoarse-voiced musicians with guitars strapped to their thin torsos.

These types tug at my heartstrings for simple reasons:

1) they remind me of my grandmother;
2) I want to help people with disabilities who face an unlevel playing field in China, but severe degrees of maiming just frighten me into looking away;
3) tortured singer-guitarists bring back memories of the intoxicating mix of hope and angst that I heard in 1980s Cui Jian rock.

On my journeys between Chaoyang and Haidian, I saw plenty of these three types. As I tucked bill after bill into gnarled hands or messenger bags, I began to notice what others around me were doing. With great surprise, I realized that no matter how ragged, old, frail, and country-ish successive beggars looked, few commuters bothered to even glance their way. (I could almost hear the disdainful snorts of my neighbors each time I opened my wallet).

Yet, as soon as young musicians strolled through strumming their chords, people perked up, put away mobile phones and MP3 players, and whipped out generous donations (5 and 10 yuan bills aren’t insignificant in this context).

What’s behind the discrepancy? Why are people selectively compassionate, willingly ignoring the poor while eagerly supporting grassroots artists?

Most local Chinese are likely to say that they turn a blind eye to beggars because “It’s all a scam.” Jaded isn’t apt enough of an adjective to describe these sentiments.

“They’re professionals!”
“The older the granny and the younger the kid, the more they cheat you.”
“They make more money than I do!”

The indignation is understandable. Ordinary Chinese perceive this country to be a land of opportunity where, in 30 years, people who seized new opportunities pulled themselves up by their bootstraps to achieve enormous success. So, why give freebies to those who didn’t manage to better themselves and instead resort to begging?

While this attitude is understandable, it is not excusable. The average middle class city-dweller overestimates how much their diligence is responsible for their current comforts and underestimates the role of luck. In our rapidly changing economy, the upside, if you happen to be in a place to catch it, is huge, but so is the downside. The worst off, those who continue to fall through the cracks of market reform, are unfathomably destitute.

Saying that beggars are “professionals” doesn’t change the reality that theirs is a pathetic choice set. If other attainable ways of making a living were available, who would prefer roaming the streets bowing down for money as their choicest employment? If you’re opposed to monetarily rewarding those who “choose” this life, then give food or water, not a contemptuous look.

What about the “beggar-musicians”? What explains the enthusiasm my fellow commuters show for the cause of struggling artists?

I suppose the flip side to jadedness toward beggars is affinity for free-spirited musicians. The glamour and romance embodied in a passionately irresponsible, stylishly disheveled rocker with a “devil may care” attitude is irresistible. On some level, all the subway commuters and cross-town drivers toiling away at their day jobs must aspire to the reckless abandon with which these young men pursue their creative interests.
While an older generation looked upon these “beggar-musicians” as decrepit good-for-nothings, the younger set bestows its admiration. I hear people reflect, “They’re doing something to deserve the money and not just begging” and “I give them money because they play good music.”

But, truly, is a city boy dressed in deliberately frayed clothing playing his guitar working harder than the country beggar who never had the luxury of music lessons? And what about the city’s many blind beggars who play er hu or sing into microphones with speakers strapped to their chests? They’re also “doing something” to work for their money, but people don’t respond with 10-yuan bills.

Ultimately, I think these inconsistent feelings toward beggars and street musicians are mixed up in the modern Chinese amnesia. After pulling through decades – indeed centuries or millennia, if you want to include dynastic strife – of suffering, we simply want to forget pain and unhappiness. Those who have modestly “made it” want to look to the future, to hope, to happiness, and to all things pleasurable. And while they’re making their way to the future on their daily commute, they want to hear the aspiring song of a young artist, not the tragic tunes of people who have already been left behind.


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