Beijing couple prides themselves on freedom of choice
Bian Dacheng and his wife, Liu Zhiying, are proud to own a children's clothing store alongside a bustling four-lane street in the heart of Beijing. Their pride is noticably centered on their ability to choose what they want to do for the rest of their lives.
"It was our own personal choice to open the business," Bian, 54, said. "We have little pressure to make money. We are already retired. We are doing this to consume our time."
Inside their small store on Diananmen Wai, Bian sits next to Liu, who busily knits an infant’s sweater. The couple began selling children’s clothing at the shop more than 20 years ago, when it was one of 10 businesses on the block. They own the property and live in the back of the building, while most of the stores surrounding them pay an exorbitant rent.
Like other Beijing natives, Bian and Liu owned property before Beijing became the thriving hot spot it is today for small business opportunities. This has enabled them to take advantage of economic reforms and carve out their piece of the new Chinese dream within the world's second largest economy.
After the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, China pursued a centrally planned economy in keeping with its communist tenets in which every citizen was guaranteed a job—a task the Chinese government took into its own hands.
The Chinese people were rarely given the opportunity to choose their career paths. Students were taught in school that it was important for them to be placed in occupations that were needed, not in ones that were necessarily of interest to them. Such was the case with Bian, who was assigned to work in a factory producing electric products.
Bian remembers his childhood growing up in Beijing as a happy one. He and his friends went ice skating in the winter and swimming in the summer. He began working in the factory at 16 years old, and remained there for more than 20 years.
Liu, 51, came to Beijing when she was 13. She returned to the countryside to work three years later, in 1973, during a time period when Mao ordered millions of educated Chinese urban youth to learn the ways of the rural people in a movement called shangshan xiaxiang (meaning "up to the mountains and down to the villages"). She returned to Beijing after three years in the country, where she worked in a factory for 28 years.
After Mao’s death in 1976, Deng Xiaoping put in place market-style reforms beginning in 1978. The opening of the economy paved the way for a shift to a contractual employment system, where jobs were no longer guaranteed.
Because of the shift, Bian stopped working in the factory, and began to wait tables at a restaurant. He and his wife also had a short stint providing printing services and selling notebooks and pens before they retired and opened up their children's clothing shop.
From 1980 to 1990, the government emphasized raising personal income and consumption, helping to set the stage for China's economy to grow at an average rate of 10 percent a year during the period between 1990 and 2003.
Bian and Liu reflect a new Chinese identity in which those who grew up during Chairman Mao Zedong’s reign have experienced a growing freedom of choice since economic reforms began to gain traction in the 1980s.
"When we don't feel like opening the store, we just leave the doors closed," Bian said proudly. "We have the freedom to do this."