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China's peasants opt for urban grindstone

China's 80 to 110 million migrants brave tough factory conditions for a once in a lifetime shot at leaving the farm.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 23, 2004


Liu Wang is a migrant worker who just bought her brother his first suit. She's elated, but won't show it.

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Like most laborers in this east coast shoe factory town, Liu will go back to her village for spring festival. The holiday, which started Thursday, is a time when migrant sons and daughters bring home gifts that show their hard work and regard for the family. Liu thought about the suit all week, and spent this afternoon on the assembly line debating which color her 14-year old brother would like. She ended up buying wide-pinstripes in gray, the latest fashion in this Jinjiang neighborhood called Yang Dai.

The suit was a good buy, bargained down to $16. It's a third of Liu's monthly salary. In Liu's village it is nearly a matter of public record what gifts and what sums of money arrive from the wealthy east this time of year, and a nice bounty gives the family "face."

Outside the brightly lit clothing shop it is getting dark, and energy levels are rising. Life in migrant-majority Yang Dai is lived in a frenzy of small dramas, right on the street, and the sounds of snooker and stir- frying are heard every few feet.

But this isn't the noisy energy of quitting time. It's just dinner time. Most of the 17- to 30-year-olds who gather at phone shops, or rush around the block with a bowl of noodles in hand, will shortly re-don their uniforms and work four more hours in the factory. They start at 8:30 a.m. and end at midnight. What's more, they largely prefer this life to the life back on the farm. Most have never seen so much money.

Outside China the fabled rise of the economy here evokes images of neon skylines or streets crowded with shiny black luxury cars. Yet the core of China's growth are low cost products made by a largely migrant labor class, peasants, from the heartland.

The muscle of China's economy

The migrants, estimated at between 80 and 110 million, are the muscle of the economy. They can be seen any day in east coast cities, walking along highways, squatting in construction crews, arriving from interior villages no one has heard of.

Most work at least 28 days a month; between 50 and 70 percent of them will send their pay, called remittances, back to the family. The money is used to help build a house, to get aging parents off the farm, to make sure that a brother can continue to study at local schools that lately require tuition, or to finance a small shop.

"Without migrants, the whole structure would collapse," says David Wank, a China specialist at Sophia University in Tokyo. "They staff the shops, restaurants, factories, construction. It all depends on migrants."

Interviews with dozens of migrants demonstrate their great resilience. In the social strata they are an often invisible if not forgotten sector whose capacity for cheap labor and long hours are matched by their ability to face rugged obstacles such as crowded workplaces, police detentions or abuse, and avaricious employers who often withhold pay or otherwise exploit them, knowing they are easily replaceable. NGO groups that organize unofficially to help migrants often work under great pressure, their leaders say.

Despite low status, migratory workers represent a real change in China. For the first time in this ancient place a significant number of peasants are leaving rural areas where their families have lived for eons. Many will return to settle in the village - but an increasing number plan not to, as land and jobs in the villages remain scarce.

At the same time, migrant earnings from the east partly help to steady China's economy as it moves from farm to city. Their remittances, sent back to China's interior regions, help ease the poverty as countless farm villages continue to struggle and to be "hollowed out," as a Chinese rural economist Li Chang Ping puts it.

"The migrant remittances are crucial to stabilizing the countryside, while the central government figures out how it will handle the rural issue," says one Beijing scholar.

Migrants have limited legal standing. No union represents them, and for the scant number of Chinese that contemplate organizing, the millions of new migrants are a "worst case scenario," as one expert puts it.