Business / View

Instructive tale of great piano move

By Ed Zhang (China Daily) Updated: 2014-11-10 10:14

Starting at around 7 am the other day, I took a trip on a box truck with a small group of movers in Beijing. They are piano specialists, claiming to be experienced in helping customers send or relocate pianos.

This time the task appeared to be simple, to move just one upright piano from the south of the city to the north. But it turned out to be tough indeed. In both places they had to manhandle the piano, weighing more than 200 kilograms, down from the second floor and then up to the fourth floor using the narrow staircases of old residential buildings that date to the planned economy era.

It was a time, by the way, when it was considered not quite politically correct for individuals to own such "bourgeois" instruments as a piano. Now, of course, sending children to piano lessons is becoming more popular among the country's middle-class households.

The movers did their job with expert care, using cotton-padded quilts to prevent the piano from being scratched. The customer was obviously happy about their delivery, and was willing to pay them more than the price (600 yuan, or less than $100) the company quoted earlier.

This was about the amount the threesome earned for about three hours' work. I don't know what the company's cut of that was. And I had no way of telling how much the movers can make in a year working like this. It's certainly as physically strenuous as what I went through when I was made to work at a reservoir construction site in Xinjiang in the 1970s.

But I don't need the exact figures to know there must be a huge contrast with living expenses, especially for housing rent, in Beijing. "I've been in this city for almost 20 years," said the driver, who is also the team leader. "But I haven't saved much."

On the other hand, he cannot just quit his job right now. This is the place that recognizes his expertise. Moreover, he is more familiar with most, if not all, of Beijing's streets and residential estates than most people born here. He would be like a total stranger if he went back to his home village in the mountains of South China.

The dilemma facing the piano movers' team leader reflects a general dilemma facing many people in China, and for that matter, perhaps the whole country. There haven't been enough pianos for the new service workers in cities to move around in a morning to make more for their physical labor and skills. That is, there's not enough middle-class spending power to help the service workers lift their income more quickly, and to attract more migrant workers from rural areas.

And from here we can infer that China's current slowdown means not just a dip in GDP growth. More importantly, it means a weakening of the link between the nation's largest group of labor (its young to middle-aged workers yet to find the full benefit from their skills and abilities) and the largest potential demand as determined by the nation's changing demographic features.

On the surface, the current slowdown is a question of whether to stimulate growth. But in essence, it is a question of where to find unsatisfied demand.

One of the biggest reminders of that yet-to-be-tapped demand is the long, everyday queues at all major hospitals in Chinese cities - now that many of the Chinese baby boomer generation (born in the 1950s) need more medical care.

Although rules have recently been relaxed to allow investors to set up new companies in many industries in China, it remains difficult for privately owned clinics and hospitals to compete with the State-owned ones on an equal footing. People cannot get reimbursement for their medical bills from many privately owned medical services with the State-run medical insurance program.

If a change were made, not only would there be more choices, and hopefully more healthy competition, among the available medical services, but many new jobs would also be created, such as for nurses and hospital workers. And the number would certainly be much larger than that of specialized piano movers.

The author is editor-at-large of China Daily. Contact the writer at

Hot Topics

Editor's Picks