Hard Bargains, Hard Life in China

Teen entrepreneur left his family's farm to join an army of city-bound peasant migrants

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

LI YUEHUA squints in the morning sunlight, reaches for a pole, and starts another warm spring day hanging out Hong Kong fashions for sale at his stall in Shenzhen's popular East Gate free market. It's just after nine in this upstart southern Chinese city bordering Hong Kong, and crowds of bargain-seekers are already threading their way down the narrow lanes lined with vendors' makeshift stands.

Running a hand through unkempt black hair, the lanky, peasant-turned-entrepreneur spots his first customers, a trio of gaudily dressed young women.

"Hey, little boy," calls the sassiest of the three, who turn out to be performers with an itinerant song-and-dance troupe from Hunan Province. "Give me a discount on these pants," she says with a teasing grin, lifting up a flouncy black skirt to try on the skin-tight blue tights.

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After 20 minutes of haggling, the women leave with half a dozen pairs of the shiny leotardlike slacks. Li smiles over a comfortable profit, then casts around for the next buyer.

"Business hasn't been too good lately," says 17-year-old Li, who spends 12 hours a day, seven days a week, peddling pants with the Playboy logo, jean jackets emblazoned with the American flag, and other trendy outfits.

Like many youths forced to grow up a little too fast, Li comes across at first like a tough, street-wise adult. But away from the raucous market, he reverts to a teenager, full of the awkwardness and confusion of a boy uneasy with manhood.

He wears sports shirts and smart-looking jackets. TV dramas and news broadcast from free-wheeling Hong Kong are his favorites. But the veneer of sophistication fails to mask the xenophobic, traditional roots of a peasant youth who says he has never before spoken to a foreigner.

By day, Li leans back amid the bright, breezy racks of new clothing with a contented smile, drinking in the city's energy as he might a cool glass of soda. But by night, when he returns to a gray, putrid slum, he can't help longing for the quiet green hills and terraced paddy fields back home.

Just a year and a half ago, Li left his parents, sister, and earthen-brick farmhouse in a village 150 miles northeast of Shenzhen and joined a growing army of 70 million peasant migrants in their march on Chinese cities.

The rural exodus began in the early 1980s, after China dismantled Mao's communes and eased the hukou system that controlled residence, unleashing a vast store of surplus farm labor.

Meanwhile, the market-oriented policies of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping created high demand for unskilled manpower, especially in fast-growing coastal cities and pioneering "zones" for economic reform like Shenzhen.

Li, like most migrants, was compelled by the prospect of a job and cash wages to pull himself out of the morass of poverty and idleness at home.

"My family has no money. At home, we eat what we grow and only sell a little," he says in the twang of his native Wuhua County, which lies in the most impoverished and overpopulated region of Guangdong Province.

Li's parents sustained the family by growing rice, peanuts, and other crops on a small, quarter-acre plot. They raised chickens, pigs, and a water buffalo. Li played soccer and ping-pong with friends after school.

BUT few in Wuhua County, including Li, saw opportunities to get ahead, especially after the area was ravaged by a major flood in 1986.

"Everyone in my hometown is heading out," he says.

After a disappointing failure in the high school entrance exam, Li and his older brother pocketed the modest family savings and caught a bus south for Shenzhen. At the border that fences off the 327-square-kilometer (126-square-mile) economic zone from the rest of China, they acquired a pass from police and crossed into the city, awed by its skyscrapers and luxury hotels.

The brothers quickly set up shop in the free market, joining hordes of vendors, repairmen, construction workers, and other migrants encamped in Shenzhen, which has a "floating population" of 1 million, overwhelming its 620,000 permanent residents.

Today, Li can claim moderate success. He clears $125 a month at the clothing stall, making him wealthy by Chinese standards, though not in Shenzhen, which boasts the country's highest annual per capita income at $2,000.

He earns enough to dress well, pay the rent, see a couple of movies a month, buy kung-fu novels, and send $50 home to his parents from time to time.

The southern boomtown is a feast for Li's curious, active mind. Unlike back home, where he rarely saw newspapers, here he reads them every day and "knows all about the Gulf war."

With a new-found independence from the Confucian, patriarchal ways of the village, Li says he will make his own decisions on marriage and future jobs.

"I listen to myself, not to my parents," he says.

But Li's life also reflects the hardship, alienation, and insecurity of peasant migrants as they form swelling subcultures in major Chinese cities.

He spends most of his early morning and late-night hours in a crowded slum, where he lives with at least 10 other migrants in a sweltering, corrugated-tin shack built on the roof of a three-story tenement. In a tiny, dark room shared with his brother and a distant cousin, Li sleeps on a straw mat laid over a wooden board supported by two saw horses. Unlike those of other migrants, his bed lacks mosquito netting. On the wall hangs a yellow cap and a worn guitar, the only nonessential item in the room.

Li cooks simple meals of rice gruel with bits of meat and vegetables on a kerosene stove in the hall. Until a spigot was rigged up recently, the hovel had no plumbing and Li washed with water hoisted by bucket from a nearby well.

Public toilets are a five-minute walk away. Raw sewage and putrid debris lie scattered in the gutters and concrete walkways below. The shack is noisy with sounds of cooking, washing, and babies crying.

Long, draining workdays leave Li little time to strike up friendships outside the free market, where fierce competition among vendors puts a limit on camaraderie. Trust is also hard to come by, as crimes like theft and fraud run rampant through the shifting migrant community.

"It's a little lonely here," a boyish Li confides.

Sitting on a stool in his stall under the glow of a fluorescent light, he seems to grow numb watching the shoppers pass as darkness falls on the marketplace.

"This job is much harder than studying," he says with a tired voice. "Sometimes I miss home and my best friends."

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