OnPoint by Keith Ng

11

Thank you for holding. You are 1...1...7...2...6... in the queue.

You know you're in trouble when there's a map of the queue. It shows fifty ticket stations supplemented by a dozen temporary ones. There are only a few thousand people crowding around them – because the actual crowd is outside, waiting in a parking-lot-sized corral.

But how to get into the corral? Looking around, my spidy-senses started to tingle. It's a familiar mix: frustration, excitement and that magical caveman x-factor. Down the block, the police are holding the line – with a rope – and they start letting people through. The first man starts running, and the stampede begins.

Oh. Fuck.

--

I've spent the last month deliberately not writing about economics. Well, okay, I spent the last month watching every season of The Wire. But, in my spare moments, I was very conscientiously not writing about economics. It's just such a bloody bore now – it's the only game in town, but we are as clueless as we were two, three months ago, and we haven't become any less screwed.

Lack of new insights hasn't stopped the fortune-cookie macroeconomics. “Wise man has fiscal stimulus. Wiser man has fiscal stimuli.” “Consumer confidence rise like tide, but fall like wave.”

And so on.

Not to pick on DPF, but just needed to get this off my chest. He said:

Borrowing money to save money is the sort of stuff that cuased the credit crisis.”

No. Like, seriously: no. Gah!!

My own understanding of the economic crisis has also been flawed. Having faffed around for weeks on the assumption that cheap oil, reduced demand and international terrorism (as opposed to the domestic ethnic separatist/ultra-nationalist/religious fundamentalists kind of terrorists) would make flights to India cheap, I discovered that I was wrong.

So under the guise of reducing my carbon footprint, I set out today for Hanoi, from Hong Kong, by train. Yet the stupid global economy still got in the stupid way.

Chinese New Years is a time when China's mobile workforce – the 130 million rural migrants who came to the cities to power China's reforms – go home to celebrate with their families. CNY is in late-January this year, and the mass movement of people usually happens about 10 days before.

Not quite, I discovered in Guangzhou Railway station, knee-deep in screaming children and dissatisfied passengers. It was a goddamn madhouse.

According to Reuters, more than 10 million migrant workers have already gone home, and more are on their way. Their jobs have evaporated. Guangzhou, a heavily-industrialised export region that has experienced massive growth is also the first to feel the chill in international demand.

It is probably more accurate to “just” call it a massive disruption at this stage – plenty of people were touting set-top DVD/MPEG-4 players and other fancy gadgets back home, and while everyone was pissed off at the conditions at the station, there were only a few with the thousand-mile stare. It felt messy and uncertain, but not irreparably grim – yet.

The Washington Post follows one of these workers all the way back to their village – it's a good read.

Seeing thousands of people literally sitting right there in front of you, as a consequence of the economic crisis... it's quite different from looking at Treasury forecasts, to say the least. It almost seems perverse that the destinies of so many people are affected so directly by something that's essentially abstract.

Plummeting consumer confidence + tightened credit conditions = that woman slumped over her bag on the floor, waiting hours (days?) for a train to take her home.

--

After an hour-long delay at the previous city, my train stopped within throwing distance of Guangzhou – and stayed there for another half hour, taunting me as my connecting overnight train left. I got off, and the biggest human migration on the planet was standing between me and the ticket stand. So much for Hanoi.

So here I am, back in Hong Kong, eating ice-cream.

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