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A home of their own impossible dream for China's migrant workers
By Fran WANG
Beijing (AFP) Dec 30, 2015

All the world's a stage: UK's RSC in first tour of China
London (AFP) Dec 30, 2015 - Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company embarks on its first major tour of China in 2016, presenting the Bard's history plays about bloodshed, honour and kingship in mediaeval England to a new and potentially vast audience.

Marking 400 years since William Shakespeare's death, the prestigious theatre company will take productions of "Henry IV Part I", "Henry IV Part II" and "Henry V" to Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong in February and March.

The trilogy is not well known in China and most in the audience are likely to be seeing the plays for the first time. The romantic tragedy "Romeo and Juliet," for instance, would probably be more well known.

On the other hand, Shakespeare is enduringly popular among Chinese audiences, and the story lines and colourful characters in the history plays should make for a compelling show, say the organisers.

"The audience will be sitting on the edge of their seats, genuinely wanting to know what happens next," predicted Joseph Graves, artistic director of Peking University's Institute of World Theatre and Film.

That is a thrilling prospect for the cast and crew as they seek to bring the courts and bloody battlefields of England and France to life in 21st-century China.

Alex Hassell -- who plays the lead role in "Henry V", currently playing at London's Barbican Centre -- said he was excited at the prospect of performing the play in a context "untethered from its theatrical history".

"The idea that maybe they (the audience) will have no notions at all about what they play is and who the people in it are and what's going to happen would be very cool," he said.

- Adding status -

Shakespeare was first taken to China in the late 19th Century by British missionaries, while the publication of a translated version of Charles and Mary Lamb's children's book "Tales From Shakespeare" in the early 20th Century spread his popularity further.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Chinese scholar Zhu Shenghao translated nearly all of Shakespeare's plays, but they fell from view under the restrictions of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, Graves said.

Now, though, Shakespeare is widely taught in Chinese universities and the RSC, based in the playwright's birthplace of Stratford-upon-Avon, is hoping to attract new audiences with its tour.

The performances are part of a wider project to build links between the RSC and China, announced in 2014 as Britain's government seeks closer economic ties with Beijing.

So what is the appeal for Chinese audiences of a British poet who worked four centuries ago and often wrote about events which took place even earlier?

Graves cited factors including Shakespeare's enduring reputation and the wave of famous Western actors who take Shakespearean productions, such as Benedict Cumberbatch.

"I personally know of 20 Chinese people who went to London for the express purpose of seeing his recent 'Hamlet,'" Graves added.

Li Ruru, professor of Chinese theatre studies at Leeds University in northern England, argued that an interest in status would also draw theatre-goers to the productions.

"The word 'royal' (in the RSC's name) is very attractive. Seeing a Shakespeare production in the original language, Stratford the birthplace of the Bard -- everything will add status," she said.

The professor added that a taste for "spectacular" social events in China could also boost the tour's appeal.

"Henry V" alone requires 72 trunks of costumes and RSC artistic director Gregory Doran has described the company as a "big lumbering ox when it comes into town".

He makes less than $1,000 a month in a city where apartments can cost more than $1 million, but even so the Chinese government is pinning its improbable hopes for a property revival on the likes of Liu Jun.

The electrician and plumber is a recent addition to China's 250 million-plus migrant workers, who have provided the labour force to transform the country's economy in recent decades, emerging from the countryside in droves to seek better lives and incomes in the cities.

Construction workers, machine operators in factories, office cleaners -- the sweat of their brows has lubricated China's growth as it expanded to become the world's second-largest economy.

But while they are free to move in search of employment, they and their children have long been denied equal access to public services such as schools, hospitals and housing under a decades-old household registration system known as "hukou".

As a result they have been denied a full share of the prosperity they have created, while a generation of their children have been "left behind" to be raised by their grandparents or other family members -- or some simply left on their own.

At the same time the property market that has fuelled much of China's growth has hit the doldrums in the last two years, with new buyers priced out despite government borrowing restrictions reining in soaring costs.

Now authorities are trying to address both issues simultaneously, reforming the hukou system to encourage migrants to buy properties in the towns and cities where they work.

Only 10 percent of migrants have bought a home in the places they have moved to, according to the World Bank.

But analysts say there are multiple obstacles to the concept, not least affordability.

"Without a lot of supporting policies, the initial impact will be relatively limited," Brian Jackson, a Beijing-based analyst with research firm IHS Economics, told AFP.

Liu, from Lankao in Henan -- a central province that is one of China's poorest -- abandoned his life as a farmer and now earns up to 6,000 yuan ($900) a month in Beijing.

New home prices in the capital averaged 34,925 yuan per square metre in November, according to a survey by the China Index Academy (CIA), which is linked to the country's biggest property website.

Liu dreams of owning a home in the capital, but would have to save for decades before that could come true.

"I would love to stay in the city," he said. "But I don't have the money and so I don't have any buying plans."

- Land rights -

The hukou reform plans, unveiled last week after a key four-day economic planning meeting addressed by President Xi Jinping, would make more migrants eligible for urban registrations more quickly.

The thinking is that incomers would be more likely to invest in a permanent home if they could enjoy the same rights as official residents.

"We must implement household registration reform plans... to cultivate (migrants') expectations and demand for the purchase or long-term lease of a house in their place of work," said a statement released by the official Xinhua news agency following the meeting.

It was the first time authorities have explicitly and publicly linked hukou reform -- which has been repeatedly promised over the years -- to property sales.

But while holders of urban hukous have access to services, rural hukous give their holders rights to use land, which in China is all owned by the state. Many expect those rights to become tradeable assets if and when China ever reforms its land laws, making them reluctant to give them up.

"Not all rural residents are willing to become urban dwellers," said Wendy Chen, an analyst with Nomura International in Shanghai. "One of their concerns is... whether they can retain their land."

Across 100 major Chinese cities, November's average new home price was 10,899 yuan per square metre, according to CIA, but employment opportunities -- and wages -- decline with city size.

In lower-tier cities "there might not be a strong labour incentive to move there", said Jackson of IHS Economics.

- Ghost towns -

Urbanisation and property development have been key drivers of China's decades of growth as they fuel demand for many other industries including steel and cement.

A 10 percent increase in residential property investment yields a full percentage point of additional GDP growth, according to Niny Khor, an economist with the Asian Development Bank in Beijing.

China's long property boom, driven by credit and government spending, made fortunes for many owners as new districts mushroomed across the country.

But several have since become "ghost towns", and many Chinese cities have a glut of empty and unsold residential property.

At the same time developers who took big bets on continuing housing growth still have huge loans to repay.

China's home sales fell 7.8 percent by value in 2014, as the country's GDP growth slowed to 7.3 percent, its weakest since 1990.


IHS Global Insight


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