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China's scattered migrants

Interview by Sally Kincaid and Charlie Hore, December 2012

China's booming economy has been built on the back of migrant workers. Hsiao-Hung Pai talked to Sally Kincaid and Charlie Hore about her new book and the lives of China's migrant population

Why did you choose the title Scattered Sand for your book?

The idea of Scattered Sand came originally from Sun Yatsen, the founding father of the Guomindang (Nationalist) Party - so it came from the Republican Revolution of 1911. The idea was when he was talking about the Chinese people as being scattered sands - not united as a nation against Western imperialism.

I used these words because I heard a lot of migrant workers using them, talking about their own movement into the cities - a spontaneous and unorganised movement. They say we're like the scattered sands: disunited.

Most writing about migrant workers starts and ends in Guangdong province, in south east China, but you started in north east China. Why?

The media over here tends to concentrate on Guangdong because it is the centre of manufacturing. But there are other industries that attract migrant workers.

My book probably reads like a travelogue because I wanted to use the train journeys to link up people's stories. I started from Britain, got a train to Russia and followed migrants going home. From Moscow I travelled through Siberia to north east China.

North east China is a place where millions of people lost their jobs as a result of the closure of state owned enterprises. I visited the city of Shenyang. There were millions and millions of migrant workers there and at that time many of them were losing work as a result of factories closing down in the middle of a recession. There were hundreds of migrants gathering around job centres, looking for work every day. Shenyang was the place where I met large groups of migrant workers for the first time in China.

Travelling by train makes it easy to meet people - travelling in the same cabins, you can get to know them.

Migrants have transformed the Chinese economy over the past 20 years. How do you think that experience has changed them?

There's one very interesting example when I went to this village in Henan province where 4,000 villagers migrated at roughly the same time since the 1980s and 1990s. They all went as a wave at the same time to Xiamen - a big industrial city in Fujian province. They became construction workers and taxi drivers and many of them lived together when they got to Xiamen, in a place called Henan village. When they made money they sent it home and their village prospered as a result.

One of the most successful migrants went back and built a school - a private primary school. He wanted to provide better education for the rural kids, because he felt the state schools weren't good enough.

These are the kind of effects we're seeing as migrants send money back to their communities. Fujian is another obvious example. Historically Fujian migrants went to Japan, the US or the UK and sent money back to build houses, to provide education, to save for their children's futures and to help relatives. So it has a huge impact on their communities.

What happens to the children of migrants when their parents go to work in the cities?

A lot of migrant parents take their children with them. The problem is that rural children don't get the same treatment as urban children - they don't get a proper education. Primary education is normally free, but migrant children's parents have to pay fees. Migrant workers often have to pay a third of their wages to send their kids to school. Children left in the villages are usually looked after by grandparents.

The economy now relies heavily on migrant workers, but they have no right to stay in the cities. The only major reforms to this were in Sichuan province - in Chengdu city - back in 2011. But that didn't work out very well. Local government was trying to make the migrant workers have the same benefits as the urban people. But the precondition was that the migrants had to give up their land. A lot of peasants don't want to do that.

The government is trying to unify urban and rural. But that also means that urban people can move to the countryside to buy land and properties, while the peasants have to give up their land without knowing what kind of deal they will actually get in the cities. A lot of them don't have the confidence to do that - there's been a huge problem over the country with landgrabs. Every local authority has its own criteria for permitting permanent residents, but by and large the criteria are so harsh that only a very small number of migrants can meet them. So only a very small number can afford to move and change their Hukou [Chinese system of household registration] status.

The Hukou system was introduced in 1958, basically to stop people moving into the cities. There have been attempts to change it. In the old days it was much stricter. When migrants enter the city they have to apply for a temporary residence permit, and they have to pay for it - it costs a few hundred yen. For many people that's a lot of money. If they are found without a permit they get locked up and detained.

Is that temporary residence linked to a particular job?

No. It doesn't matter which job you are in. The problem is in order to be able to apply for permanent residence you have to have had a stable job for a number of years. To a migrant that's like saying don't bother. Jobs are very hard to keep.

When I was in Xinjiang province every foreigner had to register for a temporary residence permit just like a migrant worker. I spoke to a policeman who told me that you had to apply for this, pay this money and follow these rules. Another day when I went there to sign in he said, "It's been abolished." The police officer next to him said, "I don't think it has been abolished" - and they started having an argument about what the rules were! These strict rules are often applied very randomly.

Do you think there have been more strikes in recent years? In 2010 there were strikes in Honda and Toyota car factories that involved high levels of organisation, with openly organised picket lines, for example.

In Guangdong province there have definitely been more strikes and workers' actions since 2008-2009. At the same time in Guangdong there has been an increase in suicides.

In 2011 there was a huge strike, involving four or five thousand workers, at a Foxconn [the company the produces Apple products] factory in the city of Shenzhen. Workers demanded higher wages. There was a riot about two months ago at the Foxconn plant in Taiyuan, in northern China. The company was trying to increase "quality control" without giving proper training. The work regime was too tough, the pace too fast and the wages too low. About 1,000 people took part in that. People know that strikes work.

Foxconn actually moved some of their operations inland, away from their original plant in Shenzhen, to get away from this problem of self-organisation.

Yes - they started a new plant with the same conditions which produced the same result: workers fought back!

There's a high level of class consciousness among many migrant workers. Poor working conditions, a lack of ability to redress grievances and a lack of organisations representing workers have fed anger at the ruling class. There's a clear sense of them and us.

The Communist Party recently went through a change of leadership, promising to address corruption and the gap between rich and poor. It's all rhetoric - and I think people know that. They always talk about cracking down on corruption - but if you go online it's clear that no one believes this.

The common feeling is that people are watching a show in which they cannot participate. There's a total lack of transparency. This comes out online - there are millions of Weibo [Chinese social media website similar to Twitter] posts about the 18th Congress of the Communist Party, held last month, and most of them are critical. Chinese Weibo users were more interested in the US election, because there was at least some excitement and uncertainty about who would win!

Internet users use the word Sparta [the name of the Ancient Greek city-state that was a military dictatorship] in order to avoid the censors, when they want to talk about the Eighteenth Congress. It's a play on the Chinese "shi ba da", which are the first three characters in the full title of Eighteenth Congress of the Communist party of China. Basically Sparta means dictatorship. People use it as a joke: Sparta's coming! If you don't like it you can go to prison!

Scattered Sand by Hsiao-Hung Pai is published by Verso, £16.99


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