Heading for cities ... and the good life. Chinese youth seek lucrative jobs, but often find exploitation in urban areas

This year marks a decade of economic reform in China. This story is part of an occasional series examining how change has affected individual lives. THE daughter of a fireworks-maker, Liu Xiangwen grew up always looking for a bigger bang and a brighter flash.

So, soon after her 15th birthday, in August, she left her small hometown in Hunan Province for high-paying work and blazing nightclubs in the go-getting enclave of Shenzhen.

During a few months in China's city of dreams, however, Ms. Liu has found more smoke than light. She's had to hawk newspapers on the street, struggling to earn enough money to get by.

``I'd be much happier working in my father's fireworks workshop,'' she said, selling newspapers amid the trash strewn around the busy steps of a department store. ``I want to go home.''

Liu is one of millions of youths from the backward areas of inland China who have quit school at the urging of their parents and sought work in booming coastal cities.

From Shenyang in the north to Canton in the south, Chinese younger than age 16 peddle vegetables in hectic city markets, work on bamboo scaffolding high above construction sites, and hunch over machinery during 15-hour workdays in dark and fetid sweatshops.

``An increasing number of children from rural China are missing out on the opportunity to go to school and the situation is getting worse,'' the official newspaper China Daily reported recently. Last year at least 3 million Chinese children left their education to begin work, joining some 37 million other child dropouts from city and countryside schools, according to state statistics.

The swelling number of working children in China is perhaps the ugliest outgrowth from a decade of market-oriented economic reform. The state has loosely enforced weak laws against the employment of child laborers, failing so far to protect this helpless group from social ills created by reform.

Since 1978, Peking has spurred many areas of China to unprecedented prosperity by easing strict central planning and encouraging aggressive entrepreneurship. Many of China's new hustlers, however, have illegally abused the innocence of children, hiring them for their obedience and low wages. In some areas, 20 percent of the employees in township enterprises are children, according to Labor Ministry statistics.

State officials say parents are also to blame. Enjoying less social regimentation than a decade ago, parents have answered Peking's call to get rich by pulling their children from school and putting them to work.

``It's a popular slogan in coastal areas that primary school pupils make big money, while college students make little money,'' the official Outlook magazine reported.

Some 80 percent of the child dropouts are girls, betraying the sexist aim of parents to exploit a daughter before she marries into another family, according to Chinese officials.

Some parents have revived the traditional practice of selling babies, buying the complicity of a Communist Party or government official with a bribe, according to Chinese press reports.

``Women's bellies are also small banks,'' China's Women's News said last month, depicting the views of parents in an Anhui Province village who sold 75 babies to dealers in children.

At Shenzhen, Liu and other ruddy peasant youth in baggy, olive-drab clothes form a noisy gantlet on major sidewalks, selling papayas, bananas, and newspapers or offering to work as cobblers or porters.

Liu had expected to make a living on an assembly line, not a street. Encouraged by her parents, she left home with her cousin and rode a train 400 miles to Shenzhen, dodging police to enter the restricted ``special economic zone'' bordering Hong Kong. She hoped to work in an electronics factory, as did her aunt, who had returned to their hometown of Liuyang last spring with thousands of yuan and a Hong Kong-made tape recorder after working in Shenzhen for two years.

With little more than clothes and a tin teacup, Liu arrived at China's most dynamic city as opportunities for youth were at an ebb.

``At home I didn't want to make firecrackers all my life, but here I just can't find work. I've tried everywhere, but the foremen say there're no more jobs,'' she said.

Instead, Liu makes a little more than enough money to pay for food and a dormitory bed she shares with her cousin and another girl. ``It's hard to make enough to live here - there're lots of girls like me, and most policemen chase us away every time they come by,'' Liu said, cradling stacks of newspapers and peering down the sidewalk.

The hundreds of children already hired by Shenzhen factories face ``living and working conditions that are unbelievably bad,'' Radio Peking reported. In many factories children must work from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m., with an hour off for both lunch and dinner. Their wages are far less than what adults earn, and they live at the factories in dark, damp, and putrid tenements.

``In Shenzhen today exploitation not only exists - it is protected and respected,'' the radio reported. City officials declined to discuss the problem.

The communist leadership, having taken power in 1949 with a pledge to eradicate abuses like child labor, passed laws last month aimed at preventing the employment of youths like Liu. Under the regulations, the state would fine children's bosses and parents and require that all workers hold a state-reviewed contract, according to official press reports.

But the recent measures are not much stronger or more detailed than a longstanding, ineffective law on compulsory education that bans child employment, some officials said. Instead, China needs a detailed national law aimed solely at protecting the rights of children, they added.

``The problem is that during the course of reform and the creation of a market economy, the Chinese legal system has not been able to keep pace with changes in society like the problem of child labor,'' said Fan Xiping, vice-president of the Municipal Youth Union in Shanghai, one of a handful of cities and provinces enacting its own child-protection law.

Even a stiff, comprehensive law would be useless in the hands of officials who conspire with the traffickers in child laborers.

``Colluding with local cadres who will do anything for money, recruiters often change the name, age, and status of a child worker to deceive inspection departments...,'' Radio Peking said.

Although Liu's job-hunting strategies have carried her no farther than the sidewalk, she can sometimes put aside some extra money and find what she had expected from Shenzhen at the cinema. ``I always look forward to the movies. Then I can get away and pretend life is the way I'd thought it would be.''

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