China's New Working Class

By Seth Faison,
author of "South of the Clouds: Exploring the Hidden Realms of China"
Wednesday, October 22, 2008


From Village to City in a Changing China

By Leslie T. Chang

Spiegel & Grau. 420 pp. $26

China's global rise is powered by mega-factories that churn out toys and shoes and electronics by the billion, and those factories run on the energy of migrant workers who left villages for assembly lines by the millions. Migrant workers now swarm every city in China, where they are easily identified by their cheap clothes and vacant facial expressions. In Chinese, they are known as the "floating population." Whether there are 130 million or 200 million migrant workers -- no one can count them -- many social scientists assert that they represent the largest migration in human history.

In "Factory Girls," Leslie T. Chang delves deeply into the world of migrant workers to find out who these people are and what their collective dislocation means for China. Chang skillfully sketches migrants as individuals with their own small victories and bitter tragedies, and she captures the surprising dynamics of this enormous but ill-understood subculture. In many ways, migrant workers embody the fundamental changes underway in China today.

Chang covered China for the Wall Street Journal, and she's an insightful interpreter of a society in flux. People who leave village life, with its intense cocoon of family and community ties, find themselves untethered in a city, scrounging for work and a place to sleep. "They were prey to all sorts of cons, making life decisions on the barest bits of information," she writes. And yet many migrants also feel freed from a suffocating web of traditional habits and mores. Able to explore and grow in the lawless free-for-all of China's boomtowns, many cross an invisible line into the modern world, and there is no going back.

Chang got to know dozens of young women who have ventured to Dongguan, a new metropolis just north of Hong Kong. She focuses on two particularly compelling ones, Min and Chunming, who gradually came to trust her enough to share their stories, as well as diary entries, late-night phone calls and heart-to-heart confessions. Each is ambitious, impulsive, endearing. Each left home as a teenager and experienced a big adventure. Through their lives, Chang shows us how unmoored China is, erratically yearning for something better, and surprisingly resilient.

One of the women describes her blurry, confusing arrival in a new city, getting lured into a whorehouse, escaping, begging on the street, stealing another woman's ID card to get work at a toy factory, graduating to clerkdom, learning about business, striking it rich with direct sales only to see her company crumble overnight. Chang explores a "talent market," where workers offer themselves to any prospective employer -- a sneaker factory, a dating agency, an illicit nightspot. She reads magazines about migrant life that the women eagerly pass around, with articles titled "Be Your Own Master" and "Ambition Made Me Who I Am." Interactions among migrant women seem a cross between high school networking and wartime bonding. Being far from home, the women depend on each other to survive, yet they unite and separate with remarkable ease. Everyone lies. Promises are made and broken. "Dongguan was a place without memory," Chang writes.

Partway through "Factory Girls," Chang abruptly changes gears to tell her own family history. It is fascinating. Her great-grandfather was a landowner in northern China and a Confucian patriarch with four wives. His son, Chang's grandfather, studied mining in the United States and then returned to China. At the height of China's civil war, working for the Nationalists, he was assassinated. Chang's grandmother escaped to Taiwan with her children, leaving relatives and family wealth behind. Chang's father later immigrated to America, where Chang was born and raised. He did not like to talk about family history. Only after Chang had worked in China for some years did she begin to explore and discover the truth, including the myriad resentments and injustices that festered among her relatives, as well as the government's suppression of accounts of the past.

Chang writes about her family and its dislocations with special sensitivity and grace. That story is almost like a book within a book, and it gives a poignant perspective to her accounts of the dislocated migrant workers she gets to know. More than that, it completes her portrait of China.

If the lives of migrant workers seem to represent the new China, with all its unwieldy promise and economic possibilities, Chang's family history reflects the old China, its stubborn intractability and severe injustice. For now, the two still go together.

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