The China Miracle

12.10.12

Ghosts in the Machine: The Story of China’s Rural Migrants and Their Uncertain Future

Behind the economic miracle of China stands millions of rural migrants who keep the country going. Ross Perlin on a new book that tells their stories—and wonders what happens if China stops growing.

Every year, the awkwardly named Leading Group Office of Poverty Alleviation and Development, an arm of the powerful State Council, announces the list of China’s 592 “Poverty Counties.” All of them are rural, and most are in the country’s underdeveloped west: mountainous, off the grid, populated by non-Han ethnic minorities. The typical resident is a small-time farmer tilling a few acres of exhausted soil, one of 128 million rural Chinese living on less than a dollar a day.

To visit such places, as few travelers ever do, is to peel back layer after layer of development, returning to an older China of Mao suits, subsistence agriculture, and single-lineage villages. You begin in the provincial capital, always the wealthiest and most developed city. Next stop, after a long journey by bus, is the capital of the prefecture (a level of government with no U.S. equivalent): here global brands, white-collar workers, and high-tech gadgets are already much less in evidence. Then the xiancheng, or “county seat,” significantly smaller but with its markets, schools, and hospitals still powerful magnets for the surrounding countryside. Only then do you come to the villages. Basic services and facilities are now hard to come by; roads may be unpaved or nonexistent; children and old folks predominate. A palpable desolation—and the feeling of what the Chinese call luohou, or backwardness—hangs in the air.

Scattered Sand by Hsiao-Hung Pai
Scattered Sand: The Story of China’s Rural Migrants By Hsiao-Hung Pai 320 pages. Verso. $26.95. ()

China’s migrant workers, desperate to escape these conditions, are traveling in precisely the opposite direction. Over the past three decades, some 200 million of them have left home to find work, two thirds going beyond their home provinces and millions overseas undertaking what is justifiably called the largest migration in human history. As Taiwanese journalist Hsiao-Hung Pai persuasively demonstrates in Scattered Sand, many members of this “new mobile proletariat,” despite 80-hour work weeks and backbreaking labor, are becoming virtual untouchables, caught between a blighted countryside and hostile, unattainable cities. Despite powering the country's economic growth, they receive a pittance of the proceeds. The number of “mass incidents,” many the work of migrants, grows by the year. The “floating population” (liudong renkou in Chinese) is the specter haunting China.

Previous accounts, such as Leslie Chang’s Factory Girls (2008) and Michelle Loyalka’s Eating Bitterness, released earlier this year, have elucidated the human stories without providing a systematic account. Apologists have emphasized tales of success and empowerment while critics have focused on poor working conditions at just a handful of high-profile, multinational factories (September's Foxconn riot being a case in point). Pai, whose 2008 Chinese Whispers exposed migrant labor in the U.K., spent two years earning migrants' trust in factories, train stations, and worker housing complexes across the country. Eloquent and wide-ranging, Scattered Sand not only does justice, eloquently and comprehensively, to their increasingly marginal position in Chinese society, it also provides useful whirlwind introductions to Chinese labor policy, local government corruption, and minority discrimination, among other issues.

Although mostly focused on the domestic, Pai also reveals Chinese migration patterns to be fiendishly complicated and global in reach. She meets some of the estimated 50,000 Chinese small traders at the Cherkizovsky Market in Moscow, selling counterfeit goods out of wooden shacks until their expulsion by Russian authorities. In one of the book’s most poignant sections, she interviews relatives of the 21 Chinese cockle pickers who drowned in 2004 at Morecambe Bay, northwest England. She describes the epic ordeals of Fujianese migrants, dissatisfied with domestic opportunities, who pay “snakeheads” upward of $30,000 to be smuggled into Western Europe at grave personal risk.

Pai is closely attuned to particularities and details that may matter greatly within China but are little understood outside. She scrupulously records how migrants from particular villages, counties, and provinces tend to cluster in often unpredictable destinations. (Sichuanese migrants are an exception, famously being found everywhere and doing every kind of work). She notices the variety of occupations undertaken by migrants, visiting several “labor markets,” vast and chaotic hiring halls that have no real American parallel. Light and heavy industry, mining, construction, and security are among the industries that rely most on migrants, but there is also sex work, restaurant work, low-level white collar labor, driving motorbike-taxis, cleaning, caregiving, domestic work, and so on.

Given the immensity of China’s rural-urban divide, even domestic migration represents a much greater step than simply picking up and moving. The anachronistic hukou (household registration) system continues to tie all Chinese citizens to an original laojia (hometown), making it difficult for rural migrants to access basic services like health care and education elsewhere. While Chinese cities are largely free of shantytowns and favelas, migrants often live in squalid, remote “man camps,” effectively trapped by their employers. Wage theft and worker abuse are commonplace, labor laws are ignored, minimum wage increases trail inflation, and the country’s one official labor union remains a toothless bureaucracy, beholden only to the state and to employers. On the streets of any Chinese city, tattered or dusty clothes, bronzed skin, rustic manners, and “nonstandard” accents render migrants a caste readily identified and easily exploited.

“China’s history is all about how the peasantry has been burdened and oppressed, and how each time they rose up to overthrow those in power.”

Yet whatever “bitterness” migrants have to “eat,” they can hardly stay on the farm, as Pai and just about every other observer agree. Demographic and environmental pressures have made rural life unsupportable, especially in contrast to the new prosperity in the cities, which government policy has consistently favored for the past 20 years. Disassembling the previous system of collectives and communes, Deng Xiaoping’s reforms left most peasants with tiny holdings, often too measly for basic subsistence, and paved the way to an enclosure movement led by corrupt local governments. Pai records this dark assessment from one old man, despairingly hanging around a labor market with his unemployed son: “China’s history is all about how the peasantry has been burdened and oppressed, and how each time they rose up to overthrow those in power.”

The immediate catalyst for departure, however, is usually the success stories of a fellow villager. The rural economy may be a dead end, but some of these migrants ply their savings into massive new compounds back in the laojia. In rural Henan, Pai meets the coal dealer Da Cai, one of five brothers, all but the youngest of whom left their native village. After years spent mining coal and driving a cab in a coastal city, he has squeezed his way into the middle class by going into business for himself. In the megacity of Guangzhou, a female factory worker named Ying puts her career above her marriage, takes wage cuts without complaint, steers clear of “those with attitudes” (i.e. strikers), and is eventually promoted to a quasi–white collar position in the product control department, earning up to 1800 RMB ($285) per month. Call it the Chinese Dream. As long as the economic engine keeps chugging, people like Da Cai and Ying—or at least their children—feel they have a reasonable shot at joining the urban middle class, or potentially even vaulting into the managerial, bureaucratic, or entrepreneurial classes where power and wealth are increasingly concentrated.

Yet for every Ying and every Da Cai, there are many migrants who never make it, who move from one precarious job to the next or eventually move back to the village in frustration, minus the compound. For the time being, “inner-city poverty” still sounds like a contradiction in terms to the Chinese ear. The effects of a serious economic slowdown remain unknowable. The number of mass incidents increases each year. Pai is silent on what will become of rural China, where 650 million people still live, agribusiness remains rare, and poverty alleviation efforts are ongoing, recently strengthened under the banner of the “New Socialist Countryside.” “Harmonious development” has been the favorite slogan of China’s outgoing rulers, who just handed over power at the 18th Party Congress. No one knows what the next slogan—if there is one—will be.