A Chinese peasant goes to town on capitalism

A villager from western China, Qi Xuewu headed east in search of a better life, joining 140 million ambitious migrant workers.

Peter Ford/The Christian Science Monitor
Style: Qi Xuewu, a former cotton farmer, left his village in China's far west in search of a brighter future – and found it as a hairdresser and salon owner.
Jacky Zhao/Newscom
Opportunity: Migrant workers display their residence permits for Shenzhen, one of several factory towns in southern China.

China has been transformed beyond recognition since the ruling Communist party decided 30 years ago this week to abandon Maoism, build a market economy, and dismantle the "bamboo curtain" that had isolated the country from most of the world. This series explores what "reform and opening" has meant to the everyday lives of six individuals.

SHENZHEN, CHINA – It is hard to imagine Qi Xuewu, with his flowing locks, immaculately pleated shirt front, pinstripe trousers, and patent leather loafers, as a cotton farmer.

Mr. Qi could not imagine himself as a cotton farmer either. After laboring for only 18 months in his father's fields near China's border with Kazakhstan he packed his bags in 1999 and like 140 million other migrant workers, set off in search of a better life.

Qi, however, had no intention of following his fellow villagers who had "gone out" to construction sites and sweatshops on China's booming east coast. Setting his sights higher, he went to hairdressing school, which he saw as a passport to freedom.

"I knew that if I learned to become a really good stylist I could go anywhere in China with my scissors, and nobody could stop me," he says, tossing his fashionably cut hair out of his eyes.

It worked. Today, after snipping and blow-drying his way up through a series of less classy joints, 29-year-old Qi works at one of the most upscale hair salons in Shenzhen, China's fastest growing city and a showcase of the "reform and opening" policy.

It is a town built by and for migrant workers, who make up more than 95 percent of its 11 million population. They have flooded into Shenzhen and to cities like it from China's still-impoverished countryside in search of two things: work and money.

Since peasants were first permitted to leave their villages in 1978, they have found them in the hundreds of thousands of factories that have fed China's roaring export boom. Some have stayed for a year or so, others have put up with mind-numbingly repetitive work, long hours, cramped dormitories, and sketchy employment contracts for more than a decade to send money home or save it to start their own businesses.

Qi is different. It was ambition, more than abject poverty, which drove him from his native village. "I couldn't do nothing," he says. "My parents just lived to survive. My generation can think bigger thoughts, and I am lucky to have been born at this special time."

A dullard at school, with crazy dreams of going to sing in a rock band in Beijing, it took Qi more than a year to find a way out of the village where he says he was "bored to death."

It took him even longer to summon the courage he needed to leave behind his home province of Xinjiang and cross the breadth of China to Shenzhen, the Mecca of migrant workers.

A few months in hairdressing school in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, convinced him he would learn more in a working salon, so he apprenticed himself to a friend. But when he put that experience to use in a salon he opened himself in a small town near his birthplace, he was soon bored again.

"Living standards were pretty low there, life was dull, and my clients were not very demanding" when it came to innovative hairstyles, he recalls. So he made the leap, encouraged by another hairdresser he knew who had found work in Shenzhen.

He did not find the life of a migrant worker easy. "It is not hard to make friends because everyone is from somewhere else, so nobody excludes anyone," he says. "But relationships never go very deep because nobody is in a stable situation and nobody feels secure."

But Qi adapted ("I just watched what everyone around me did and did like them," he says) and prospered. Earning five times as much as the average migrant worker in Shenzhen now, "the idea of going home does not occur to me any more."

He cannot afford to, for one thing. In another departure from normal migrant worker habits Qi has not been sending his earnings home to his parents; instead he sought to multiply his money by investing in property. The recent market slump in Shenzhen has soured that investment and he has to spend much of his wages to pay off a loan.

"I miss my home a great deal," he says softly, "but I will probably end up spending most of my life here. I'm like all the other migrant workers: Nobody likes living in Shenzhen, because home is always best. But nobody wants to leave here either, because this is where we can achieve our dreams."

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