Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China

A compelling portrait of China's new working class.

Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China Spiegel and Grau 420 pp. $30

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.

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.”

But Min doesn’t suffer in silence. Instead, she moves from job to job, improving her skills along the way.

She speaks sharply to older relatives and sometimes goes against her mother’s wishes but also gives cash to needy elders. She and other young migrants play a dominant role in village holidays, because money talks.

Wu Chunming, Chang’s other main contact, “started out in a toy factory, was almost tricked into a brothel, talked her way into management, and struck it rich selling Tibetan medicine and funeral plots.”

She then worked for a government-funded newspaper that practices “journalism as extortion.” Chinese companies often pay journalists for positive publicity or, equally important, to avoid getting negative press.
Chunming later sets up a wholesale building-materials business with her first boyfriend.

Within six months, she loses everything and ends up selling paint for a Swedish-owned company.

A boomtown ‘out of control’
When I visited Dongguan as a correspondent for The Washington Post two decades ago, I found a boomtown unconcerned about directives from Beijing. In Beijing’s view, much of south China was “out of control.”

Chang found in Dongguan a city that has undergone rapid change in the past decade or two.
Although she says she “came to like Dongguan, which seemed a perverse expression of China at its most extreme,” she also notes that the city suffers from rampant materialism, corruption, pollution, and prostitution, among other woes.

In Dongguan, Chang discovered, job mobility is high. Almost all the senior factory people she met had started on the assembly line.

In typical Dongguan fashion, through boom and bust, Min and Chumming switch jobs, confront bosses, and do whatever it takes to get ahead. They also find time for romance, searching for partners through online chat clubs.

In “Factory Girls,” Chang also introduces us to southern Chinese con artists, charlatans, and flim-flam men, who sell some factory girls on their schemes but never manage to dominate many of them for long. One of these characters, a Mr. Wu, runs an assembly-line English training program that has no teachers. Beginning students simply sit at machines while columns of English words rotate past.

The author’s family as a story of its own
Chang also weaves in her own family history, which dramatizes the contrast between Chinese caught in the past and those who, like the factory girls, forget the past and create new lives.

But at times, Chang’s own history, fascinating as it is, distracts from the other stories she tells here. Her own material, if further developed, would perhaps make a fine book on its own.

Dan Southerland, executive editor of Radio Free Asia, is a former Monitor correspondent and former Beijing bureau chief for The Washington Post.

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