Migrant worker museum opens in Guangzhou

Monument to itinerant labour flatters outgoing Guangdong party chief instead of celebrating those who built China's economic miracle

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 October, 2012, 8:10am

The opening of a 200 million yuan (HK$245.2 million) Museum of Migrant Workers in Guangzhou last week seems to have been designed to add the final gloss to Guangdong party secretary Wang Yang's bid for a seat on the Communist Party's Politburo Standing Committee at next month's party congress.

But while paying tribute to the migrant workers who have played a key role in building China's economic miracle over the past three decades is a worthy idea, the museum's exhibits can only be described as disappointing. It's devoted to playing up a Wang-inspired fairy tale of happy migrant workers, while sweeping the sordid reality they face every day under the carpet.

The mainland's migrant workers - the world's largest mobile workforce - are essentially rural peasants who have been forced to seek work in affluent urban areas because they can't make a living from agriculture. Inadequate compensation offers from local governments who grab their land are often to blame for that, along with environmental devastation caused by polluting industries.

As Wang counts down what could be his last days in Guangdong, it's a good time to assess his performance in his five years as the province's party secretary. In a bid to cement his legacy, Wang ordered the building of a number of monumental structures in June last year. One of them is the Museum of Migrant Workers in Mawu village, in Guangzhou's Baiyun district, about eight kilometres from Foshan .

The museum, housed in a renovated, three-storey building that used to be a factory, sits next to a mini-village extolling Wang's controversial economic transformation policy - designed to focus the province's industrial output on hi-tech products - and living quarters for migrant workers that feature a canteen and dormitory units.

Ironically, one does get a glimpse, or rather a breath, of the toxic work environment endured by many migrant workers on first entering the museum. The pungent odour of formaldehyde makes it hard to breathe and suggests a rush to complete the museum on time - construction workers are still adding the final touches to its interior. It may explain why there are few visitors.

A security guard with red blotches on his face shrugged off a question about whether he was pleased there was now a museum dedicated to people like himself. "I don't know, but the smell is already giving me rashes. I'm allergic to formaldehyde," he said.

The museum presents only a fragment of the lives of migrant workers and conveniently avoids mentioning some remarkable recent history. Despite promises in media reports before it opened, there is no mention of the infamous spate of suicides at Foxconn factories, the months of strikes that hit Japanese carmaker Honda, or the death of Sun Zhigang in 2003. Sun was a 27-year-old from Hubei who was detained for "illegally living and working" in Guangzhou because he did not have a temporary living permit. He was beaten to death in custody, triggering a massive public outcry that led to the end of the custody and repatriation policy that targeted the mobile workforce.

Instead, a significant portion of the museum's displays explain government policies and praise the authorities for securing migrant workers' livelihoods by enforcing minimum wages and offering retraining schemes. To be fair, there are a few impressive paintings and sculptures on the ground floor, with real-life production lines next to the sculptures and background footage showing workers sewing garments and making shoes.

While many portray Wang as a liberal reformist, the museum reminds us once again that, first and foremost, he is just another party loyalist.