`Whatever the work, we can do it'. Chinese peasants head for the cities in search of better wages

This year marks a decade of market-oriented reform in China. The Monitor is running an occasional series examining how change has affected individual lives. DENG ZHIGUO and his buddies squat on a crowded sidewalk outside Canton's railway station, waiting for a construction team ``boss'' to come scouting for men.

``We do heavy labor,'' said Mr. Deng, a stocky peasant in faded cotton trousers and a dingy white shirt. ``Whatever the work, we can do it,'' he said, squaring his shoulders.

Far from his poor mountain village in Sichuan Province, Deng is one of more than 30 million peasants freed by reform to abandon farming and seek wealth as laborers in China's cities. By the year 2000, a total of 200 million peasants are expected to quit the land for jobs in industry and commerce.

With bedrolls slung over their backs and a few crumpled bills in their pockets, thousands of raggedly dressed peasants like Deng mass daily at bus depots, docks, and train stations across the country.

Sturdy and simple, the migrants find work hauling cement, sweeping streets, and delivering coal on bicycle-drawn carts. They eagerly take up these and other dirty, plodding jobs shunned by city dwellers. Young women work as street peddlers and bao mu - live-in baby sitters and maids.

Striving to advance in China's increasingly competitive society, these struggling migrants are pioneers of the reforms that are granting Chinese greater freedom to chose their livelihood than at any other time since the early 1950s.

Under the radical rule of Mao Tse-tung, Deng was bound to an impoverished commune in western Sichuan. Like most other Chinese assigned for life to communal farms and factories, he was expected to labor selflessly for the socialist cause.

A rigid hukou household-registration system barred Deng and other peasants from migrating to cities, as Maoist China blocked urbanization in a way typical of developing countries. In 1962, Chinese authorities rounded up millions of poor peasants who had fled to cities from forced communization, bad harvests, and famine and returned them to their villages.

Mao guaranteed work for Deng and every other Chinese under the communist slogan ``Take on all, provide jobs for all,'' but at a terrific cost to economic growth. Bureaucrats stiffled initiative by assigning workers for life to jobs that matched neither their skills nor desires. The policy created massive overstaffing and inefficiency, leaving China's farms and factories burdened with millions of redundant workers.

For months each year, Deng sat idle on his impoverished communal farm, unable to improve life for his family.

``I come from the backward mountains,'' Deng said somberly. ``We farmed wheat and maize. If the weather was good, we could fill our bellies. Otherwise, things were bad.''

Deng's chance for a new life came in 1978. That year, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping launched market-oriented reforms that substituted financial incentives for Maoist dogma in the workplace. For the first time in decades, Chinese were allowed to pursue personal profit unrestrained by ideology. Peking ordered the dismantling of Mao's communes and the distribution of land to the efficient hands of individual peasant families, freeing millions like Deng from tilling the land.

In 1981, Deng decided to sell his labor in the city, which offered high wages and cash - rare in subsistence-farming regions. He packed a small satchel, bade his wife, child, and parents goodbye, and joined millions of peasants journeying to cities.

Today, adventurous peasant migrants like Deng are the most aggressive participants in thousands of labor markets that have sprung up across the country since the mid-1980s.

At the crudest type of market, Deng and other migrants congregate at train and bus stations looking for local ``bosses,'' who hold up signs with wage offers like ``6 yuan ($1.60) a day.'' Government-run labor exchanges also match peasants with employers who can't find urban workers for heavy jobs.

Since leaving his mountain village seven years ago, Deng has earned a hefty sum working on construction teams, repairing roads, and hauling materials in several booming coastal cities. ``The pay is good, about 8 yuan ($2.15) a day,'' Deng said. At that rate, he can ease the hardship for his family back on the farm by sending them several 100 yuan ($27) each year.

China's labor markets are also helping to reemploy rising numbers of urban workers laid off in the competition sparked by economic reform. Some 30 million workers - nearly a quarter of the total at state and collective enterprises - are redundant and face possible unemployment, according to official statistics.

Displaced urban workers, enjoying important welfare sinecures, have so far snubbed the low-status jobs filled by peasant migrants. But as China allows more firms to go bankrupt and unemployment rises, city dwellers may find themselves competing with migrants for jobs.

Chinese peasants and city dwellers face unprecendented risk as they enjoy greater freedom in choosing work. Life is especially precarious for migrants like Deng.

``Our lives can be bitter,'' Deng said. ``If we work hard, well, things are all right. But it depends on how the `boss' is. If the `boss' is good, our lives are a little better.''

Exploitation of migrants by unscrupulous employers has become a serious problem, since peasant workers lack official labor protection. Deng said he left a construction job in Canton recently without pay. ``They beat us up and didn't give us any money, so we left,'' he said.

Mistreatment by employers is a harsh reward for work that is often as dangerous as it is grueling. At one Canton construction site, bare-headed migrants swung without safety belts from a thin metal scaffolding 20 stories above the Pearl River.

``We tell them to wear belts, but they say they work faster without them,'' the Cantonese foreman said with a shrug. Such a lax enforcement of safety regulations has cost many peasants their lives in accidents at construction sites.

Unlike city residents, itinerant workers must rely on themselves for the most basic daily needs. Migrants like Deng lack state food subsidies, housing, pensions, and other social security enjoyed by city dwellers.

Between jobs, Deng sleeps in public squares, on sidewalks, and under traffic flyovers.

``I couldn't afford to spend one night in a hotel,'' he exclaimed. ``We're sleeping right here in front of the station.''

When he's out of work, Deng lives on bowls of steamed rice and white bread to save money for his family and a yearly train ticket home.

``It's a long road back,'' he sighed. ``We only see our wives once a year, at spring festival [Chinese New Year]. Sometimes, I feel homesick.''

Next: A former housewife gladly returns to cooking and washing.

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