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Review by Paul Levine

We Are Like Scattered Sand: 200 Million Migrant Workers in China by Haiao-Hung Pai, Verso: New York and London, 2013, ISBN-13: 978-1781680902, 320 pp., $20.64 (Hardcover), $15.69 (Paperback),     $9.99 (Kindle).

Anyone who has attended a briefing by a Chinese official knows what to expect: a recitation of statistics in a charmless monotone. In a nation of 1.3 billion people numbers rule. While Scandinavians may believe that “Small is Beautiful”, the Chinese believe that “Bigger is Better.” Perhaps they learned to valorize quantity over quality from the Russians. I can still feel a wave of nostalgia when I recall ecstatic Soviet reports of bumper harvests of wheat and tanks.

Perhaps it’s impossible to talk about China’s spectacular economic expansion, fueled by an army of 200 million migrant workers, without resorting to numbers. As Gregor Benton notes in his Foreword to Hsiao-Hung Pai’s illuminating report on the hard fate of China’s rural migrants, Scattered Sand:

The present movement of Chinese peasants—around the countryside, from the villages to the towns and cities, from China to the world, and around the world–is the biggest mass movement in history. And it is among the world’s biggest social upheavals ever, dwarfing centuries of European migration to the United States. The rural migrants who are braving abuse by employers, discrimination by urban natives, and repeated crackdowns and restrictions by the authorities have driven China’s economy to new heights and changed the face of China’s cities, while the earnings they send home have helped lift villages out of poverty.

The virtue of Hsiao-Hung Pai’s Scattered Sand is that while it provides quantitative analysis of migration it is the qualitative description that stays in the mind. Pai, a Taiwanese journalist who spent years in Mainland China, has written a memorable account of the trials and tribulations of those millions of unsung workers who made the Chinese economic miracle possible. Pai informs us about China’s explosive economic growth. But she takes pains to count the social costs of rapid economic expansion. She writes, “Migrant labor is what makes the export-led manufacturing empire possible.”

First, some background on China’s amazing economic growth. After Mao Zedong’s death and the end of the disastrous Cultural Revolution in 1976, Deng Xiaopeng emerged as the new leader of the chaotic People’s Republic. A pragmatist who had been humiliated during the Cultural Revolution, Deng set out to radically transform Mao’s revolutionary vision and set China on a new course. He created an “Opening to the West” and initiated a Chinese version of market capitalism. Deng saw China’s half a billion impoverished peasants as a resource for a new migrant proletariat. With limited arable land, peasants were willing to send their sons and daughters to the new factories to support their small unprofitable farms. As globalization took command, this formidable migrant army transformed China into “the Factory of the World,” spewing out cheap cotton blouses, plastic housewares, running shoes and children’s toys for eager Western consumers.

In 1978 Deng Xiaopeng began his radical economic reforms by establishing Special Economic Zones (SEZs) in China’s first experiment with market capitalism. The first SEZs were established in Guangdong Province, close to the then British colony and commercial hub, Hong Kong. These SEZs grew exponentially, transforming Shenzhen, a fishing village, into a megalopolis of 10 million souls. By 2008, Guangdong boasted 60,000 factories, which produced $300 million worth of goods per day. They accounted for nearly a third of China’s exports as well as a third of the world’s production of consumer goods like toys, textiles and shoes. Guangdong became the nation’s most populous province, with more than 100 million inhabitants, including nearly 40 million migrant workers.

The provincial capital, Guangzhou, is South China’s largest city, with a population of more than 12 million. It became the site of major investments by multinational giants like Apple, DuPont, Motorola, Shell and Sony. By 2007, the government announced, “Guangdong has become the first Chinese city to reach a per capita income of $10,000”  (excluding the nearly 4 million migrant workers that comprised the bulk of the underpaid urban work force).

“This blatant exclusion underscores the reality that Guangzhou’s seeming prosperity is far from prosperity for all,” says Pai. “In the past decade, the city’s wealth gap has continued to widen.” Pai depicts Guangzhou as a new Wild West:

You can sense the huge disparities as soon as you enter this city, and when migrants first come here to work they are overwhelmed not only by the vast transport system and its endless traffic jams, the thick fumes and suffocating air, but also by the visible inequality—the most ruthless part of Guangzhou’s urbanity—between the haves and have-nots. In Guangzhou, you see the upper middle class buying in world-class shopping malls, dining in restaurants run by famous chefs, and drinking in luxurious wine bars, spending a manual worker’s two month’s wages in a singly night, while beggars wait outside for the few Yuan you can spare and migrants wander in the middle of the night in search of a corner to sleep in.

Pai interviews the have-nots, exploited workers who pay the costs of China’s economic expansion. “Look at those apartments,” says a young woman pointing to massive worker’s dormitories. “They are overcrowded, eight workers in a four-square-meter room.” The less lucky are fired or their factories go bankrupt and the owner’s abscond with their wages. In the industrial city of Dongguan, Pai reports, 117 factories closed in two months in 2008 and all the factory owners fled without paying their 20,000 workers. “The government released figures in April 2009 showing that since 2008 around 25 million migrant workers had lost their jobs all over the country as a result of factory closures and business collapses. In Guangdong alone it was estimated, several million had lost jobs. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, about 10 percent of migrant peasants had lost city manufacturing jobs and 80 percent of them were now back in the cities trying to find work.”

Faced with overwhelming problems, overworked and underpaid, some migrants succumb to despair. In 2010 fourteen migrant workers at Foxconn, a major supplier for Apple products, committed suicide in Shenzhen. In the wake of this public relations debacle, the Taiwanese company was forced to raise salaries and improve working conditions. But in a cutthroat competitive market, Foxconn’s profits were endangered. Forbes Magazine reported that the giant company plans to install up to 1 million robots in its factories to reduce labor costs and industrial conflicts. Its partner in robotic design is said to be no less than Google. In a stunning reversal, Foxconn is considering a plan to eliminate jobs in China and Taiwan and open factories in the US.

But the Foxconn tragedy had other consequences. “The wave of strikes that followed the wave of suicides has won migrants at a least partial improvement of their working conditions,” says Pai. Salaries have increased steadily to the point where some factories are moving to cheaper inland provinces. Moreover, as workers gain bargaining strength, many are becoming more militant. “Since the first half of 2010, ‘Industrial conflict’ has grown fiercer, and migrant workers’ spontaneous industrial actions have begun to gain wider public attention, which deeply worries employers and the government.” According to government figures, the annual number of labor disputes and “mass incidents” both exceed 100,000. Indeed, as China’s one-child policy produces a rapidly ageing population, the falling numbers of younger migrant workers and their increased militancy “poses a threat to the authorities, who often speak of this generation of workers as ‘the new problem of our society’.”

Indeed, as Pai depicts them, these migrant workers are anything but passive objects in their own misery. Mao praised the Chinese peasants for being “poor” and “blank” so that they could be easily molded as pawns in the brave new world he was creating. But Pai encounters many who are fully conscious of their own exploitation. She shrewdly notes that the official media celebrates the concept of Laobaixing, which means literally “old hundred surnames. In the media the word is used to describe the Chinese as “ordinary folk” but never as “citizens.” A middle-aged man in Anhui Province explains: “Laobaixing is a feudal concept, actually, meaning the ordinary masses ruled by the few.” He continues: “The concept implies that we are not supposed to make demands or talk back, let alone revolt.” In other words, says Pai: “‘citizens’ are active, while Laobaixing are not.”

These migrants know the politics of the “real China” from the bottom up. As readers, we can learn a lot by simply listening to their voices. In Chengdu, Pai hears Xue, a 60 year-old migrant worker, explain to a small cheering crowd how the system works. “Rulers in China know about the power of those from the countryside,” he begins. “China’s history is all about how the peasantry has been burdened and oppressed, and how each time they rose up to overthrow those in power. But then those new rulers would oppress the peasant masses again, until our anger could not be contained any longer and boiled over, once more, into a revolution.” He continues, “We peasants brought the Party into power…  But once they came into power, we became burdened and exploited again! Because, they said, our Motherland needs to grow fast and catch up. Industrializing China and increasing output was the only thing they wanted from us in those years.” He concludes, “And do you know what we peasants had as our reward in the decades that followed the revolution?” He pauses before delivering the punch line: “Poverty!”

Despite their lack of schooling, many migrant workers understand the concept of citizenship better than their leaders. “Do you know what democracy means in China?” a worker named Xuan asks Pai. “It means good connections. It means knowing the right people in the right places. There is no consciousness of the need for democracy here.” Xuan adds: “I don’t know what socialism is. I can’t read Marx. But I know what socialism is not. It’s not what we have here in this country.”

The lessons of the regime’s exploitative policies are not lost on functionaries either. In Fuzhou, Pai meets Fang, a retired worker in the local propaganda department whose job it was to organize displays around town. “Did you put up all the posters of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’?” Pai asks jokingly. “Of course, that was all my work,” Fang replies. “As an expert, I can tell you this—When you see the word ‘characteristics’, you should know it means ‘fake’. ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’ therefore means fake socialism. This is all part of CCP performance art.”End.


American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy.

Paul Levine
Paul Levine

Paul Levine is Emeritus Professor of American Literature at Copenhagen University. He was born in Brooklyn, attended Wesleyan and Princeton and received a Ph.D. in the History of American Civilization from Harvard. Levine taught at Wesleyan, Rochester and York (Toronto) Universities before becoming the first Professor of American Literature in Copenhagen (1975-2006). He also held the Salgo Chair in American Studies at Eötvös Lorand University in Budapest (1986-9) and directed the annual Athens American Studies Seminar for fifteen years (1994-2009). He publishes widely on literature, art, film and culture. He collaborated with E. L. Doctorow on a volume of the novelist’s Screenplays (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003) and a new edition of America Since 1945: The American Moment, (with Harry Papasotiriou) was published by Palgrave in 2010. He has twice received royal honors in Denmark and holds the title of Ridder af Dannebrogorden, 1st Kl. (2000). Levine first went to China in 2001 at the invitation of the State Department to help create a graduate program in American Studies at ECNU (East China Normal University, Shanghai). In 2004 he was awarded a Fulbright Professorship at ECNU for three semesters. After retiring from Copenhagen in 2006, he served as director of regional studies and the new Center for International Studies (2007-11) at Shantou University in Guangdong Province. He and his wife, Lily Varidaki-Levine, now live in Copenhagen and Athens.

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