Feng Hui-Xiu works at Beijing No. 1 Machine Tool Plant, a factory at the heart of communist economy. She came here 28 years ago directly from high school and has worked here all her life. She believed she was guaranteed a job for life -- that the "iron rice bowl" meant she had nothing to worry about. All she had to do was just do her job.
In 1998, when the premier said that all state companies had to become modern and profitable in three years, workers got upset. As the manager's assistant, Feng Hui-Xiu had to give people bad news, and they would sometimes threaten her. She worries that at age 44, she is old, stating, "In the job market, I am already considered too old to be the manager's assistant." She values, however, the camaraderie of factory life.
Wang Hao-Ren's life is bound to Capital Iron and Steel, a company in the western part of Beijing that employs more than 100,000 people. As production manager, he is under enormous pressure. The company has layoffs, says Wang Hao-Ren. "I lay off workers for no reason," he says. "That's tough."
He has been working in this field for 15 years, but worries about his job. "What could I do if I left Capital Steel?" he wonders. "It really gives me a headache."
Initially, he can't live with his wife and daughter because the factory-assigned apartment is too small. More than anything, he wants to live with his family -- and the factory will sell him an apartment at an insider price. If he does lose his job, at least in Beijing there is a flourishing private sector. He has a chance of a job. But he does not want to leave, and he wants an apartment.
Zhang Wu, a businessman in Beijing, becomes increasingly successful as the documentary progresses. When the film begins, he is living with his wife and child in the small apartment of his in-laws, but by the end, he has a large, luxury apartment and ambitions for an even grander one. He runs a design business and rides in a chauffeur-driven car. He feels that he can have a second child despite China's "one child" policy because he can provide advantages for his children.
Mayor Mu Sui-Xin is the mayor of Shenyang, north of Beijing. He says, "We have to change the way people think." Under the planned economy, workers' lives were managed from cradle to grave by the government. In the market economy, people have to be responsible for themselves. Mayor Mu is trying to help his city to adjust, where 85 percent of factories are state-run. Although Mayor Mu appears to be a rising political star when the film begins in 1998, a corruption scandal results in disastrous personal and political decline in later years.
Zhang Shu-Yan tracks supplies in the stockroom of the Shenyang Machine Tool Company. Before reform, she says the main jobs were workers, peasants, and soldiers. Since she never was in the countryside, she couldn't be a peasant. "I had to work in the factory," she says. After graduation, she was assigned to work in a greenhouse, in charge of 20 women. When the greenhouse was closed, she was transferred to the warehouse job. By the end of the documentary, she has suffered from marked downward mobility in her job.
Zhang Shu-Yan worries especially since her husband is sick; he had a stroke last year, and his factory doesn't help them. As a wife, she feels she cannot abandon him, but she has to pay for her daughter's school. "I can't talk about this," she says in tears. "I must be strong for the whole family."
Tian Xiao-Wei lives in Chestnut Flower Village in the countryside. Since the beginning of reforms, her life has been transformed, from a woman with a "bad class background" who was poor and looked down on by other villagers, to someone who is highly respected. "You can do anything and no one will be against you as long as you make money," she notes.
"I can't read a word," she says. "But I want my children to get ahead. I don't want them to do heavy dirty work, the kind that makes you sweat all over, so I do it myself." She earns $1,200 a year and is one of the most highly respected people in the village. She says that her husband, a village chief, is a lazy man. He doesn't help her. She is proud that she has earned everything she has.
Hong Huan-Zhen also lives in Chestnut Flower Village in the countryside, but she and her family are slipping into poverty. They earn about $500 a year, but she has a thyroid condition that costs the family half of its earnings. The socialist system no longer pays for medicine. In addition, her young son is mentally retarded. Hong's hopes rest on her 14-year-old daughter, who is in junior high school. "I hope she can go out in the world and get ahead," she says, adding that their family's life is not good mainly because of her illness. "I am unhappy. I feel sick and unhappy," she says, adding that if she is meant to die, she should just die. By the end of the documentary, her family's life is worse and her hopes for her daughter are dashed.