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Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China

A compelling portrait of China's new working class.

By Dan Southerland / October 6, 2008

It took Leslie T. Chang two years to nail down the story she was after. Hoping to get an insider’s look at the lives of China’s more than 100 million migrant workers, Chang followed two young women – Chunming and Min, both assembly-line workers – from one factory to another as they changed jobs numerous times.

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Then she returned with them to their home villages to better understand the radical break they had made with Chinese family traditions.

In telling us their stories, Chang pulls off a real coup.

In recent years, foreign correspondents have reported on the exploitation of migrant workers. Nearly everyone knows that China’s rapid economic growth depends on cheap labor often poorly trained and sorely uneducated.

Workers have left villages that could offer no jobs and flooded into China’s cities, where they face discrimination. City people refer to them contemptuously as liudong renkou, a “floating population,” or, as Chang puts it, an “undifferentiated mass.”

But in Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China, Chang, a former Beijing correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, does more than describe harsh factory conditions. She writes about the way the workers themselves see migration, bringing us views that are rarely heard.

“Factory Girls” is highly readable and even amusing in many places, despite the seriousness of the subject. In the pages of this book, these factory girls come to life.

Chang focuses her story on factories in Dongguan, a south China city, which has drawn as many as 7 million to 10 million young and unskilled migrants. No one seems to know the real number. But they are estimated to be 70 percent female.

The young women that Chang gets to know disdain the past. They return to their villages at Chinese New Year, but never go back to stay as they might have done a decade ago.

Their everyday lives might be grim, but through struggle they develop a bracing individualism. Their parents don’t know what to make of them.

Min, a village girl who gets her first job in 2003 in an electronics factory at age 16 (the legal age is 18), finds herself working 13 hours a day for the equivalent of $50 to $100 a month. Talking on the job is forbidden and can draw a fine. Bathroom breaks require a sign-up list.

“Get hurt, sick, or pregnant, and you’re on your own,” writes Chang. “Local governments have little incentive to protect workers; their job is to keep factory owners happy, which will bring in more investment and tax revenue.”


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