CHANGCHUN: Zhao Xingfu’s name sounds similar to “pursuing happiness,” a pleasant coincidence as he narrated his family’s decades-long pursuit of happiness to President Xi Jinping.
On Thursday afternoon, Xi visited Zhao’s small apartment in the city of Changchun to learn about the lives of locals there. As the special guest ensconced himself on the sofa, Zhao placed before him a threadbare factory badge and several old photos.
With the help of these items, the 64-year-old retired worker recalled the past four decades, when his family rose from rags to riches like hundreds of millions of others in China’s epic march toward “xiaokang.”
WHEN MEAT WAS A LUXURY
Born into a poor workers’ family, Zhao married Qiu Lifen in 1981. Both were state-owned factory workers in northeast China’s Jilin Province.
It was a time when China had just kicked off the reform and opening up. The gross domestic product (GDP) then was only a fraction of the 99-plus trillion yuan (about 13.98 trillion U.S. dollars) in 2019, and the majority of the population was mired in poverty.
Zhao and Qiu could not afford a wedding that would bring together friends and families. So they went for a “travel-themed wedding” — sojourning in relatives’ homes in different cities and doing some sightseeing in between.
Their son Zhao Hao was born a year later, and the family further tightened purse strings after Zhao’s mother came to live with them. Everything from pork to cigarettes was on ration due to scarcity of commodities, and the couple’s modest incomes barely kept the family of four afloat.
In 1979, the Chinese leadership made “xiaokang” a goal of the country’s modernization, prompting the nation to strive to quadruple the GDP before the new century. The Chinese phrase “xiaokang” can be loosely translated to “a comfortable life with some savings,” which refers to a stage between subsistence and affluence.
For the couple, the “xiaokang” goal was as concrete as a bowl of meat 40 years ago. “In our leisure, we grew tomatoes and eggplants on a small patch of land for some extra vegetables. Only during festivals would we cook a small bowl of meat for the whole family to share.”
The son yearned for a guitar after watching his teenage neighbor play, but his only toy throughout childhood was a small tricycle his father welded with iron bars. Understanding his parents’ plight, the boy never expressed the wish.
HARD WORK, BETTER WELFARE
The family had just moved to the provincial capital Changchun before Qiu came down with pneumonia in 1998. Her health problems and mounting medical bills worsened the family’s predicament.
Despite the odds, the couple went all out to support their son’s schooling, with a firm belief that education can change the fate of the family.
“I once saw my mother counting on her fingers, fretting on which relative they could borrow from to pay the heating bills,” Zhao Hao recalled. “But even then, they never failed to pay my tuition and textbook expenses. I don’t know how they did it in those hard days.”
His parents’ perseverance steeled Zhao’s determination. He studied hard to win every scholarship available and was admitted to a renowned university in Changchun. After graduation, Zhao landed an engineer’s job in a large state-owned enterprise.
In 2002, China pushed for the building of a “moderately prosperous society in all respects,” to boost the economy while channeling more economic gains into public services and social welfare.
The country’s expanding social safety net came to the family’s aid. Qiu joined the basic medical insurance plan for urban residents around 2003. This eased much of the family’s financial burden.
“It’s very convenient now. I only need to take the medical insurance card when I need to see a doctor, and the reimbursement is very handsome,” Qiu said, adding their life has been stable since every family member joined the country’s welfare programs.