At the sharp end of China's economic 'miracle'

China Scattered Sand Pai Hsiao-Hung Verso books. 4 stars Mark O'Neill

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 August, 2012, 10:49pm

Scattered Sand

by Pai Hsiao-hung

Verso Books


Mark O'Neill

"Bosses can do anything they like. They do not care about breaking the rules, precisely because they are not enforced." These are the words of Peng, a 21-year-old migrant worker from a village in Liaoning province struggling to make a living in Shenyang and Beijing to support his family.

The 200 million migrant workers who produce half of China's GDP are the subject of Scattered Sand, an excellent book of reportage by Pai Hsiao-hung, who interviews them in several provinces around the mainland.

Born in Taipei in 1968, Pai has a bachelor's degree from Fu Jen Catholic University. Since 1991, she has lived in Britain, with master's degrees from three British universities. Now a freelance journalist resident in London, she wrote Chinese Whispers, about illegal Chinese immigrants living in Britain.

The value of this book is the first-hand testimony of the migrant workers she interviews. Collecting such accounts is no easy job; it involved staying for extended periods in the cities where they work and earning the confidence of people whose experience of life has made them suspicious and fearful of outsiders.

The migrants have played a key role in the mainland's economic "miracle", as workers in factories, building sites, restaurants and hotels, helping to create "the factory of the world".

"Migrant labour is what makes the export-led manufacturing empire possible," Pai writes. Yet they have few social and labour rights, as those supposedly given them by law are violated and abused by their employers, she says.

The picture Pai paints is one of abuse and exploitation worthy of Dickensian Britain.

Migrants' annual income is barely a third of the average urban wage. Employers who do not pay them go unpunished. They have no health insurance and no union representation; they are at the mercy of their bosses.

One migrant in Dongguan was supposed to be paid each month but received nothing until just before his return home for the lunar new year; the policy had successfully prevented him and his co-workers leaving during the year.

Peng, the migrant from the Liaoning village, was sacked from one job for talking back to an abusive supervisor - then fired in the next for asking for an increase in his meagre salary of 1,000 yuan a month. His boss knew that he could replace him immediately from the enormous labour pool.

Many migrants are exiles from land seizures. "These official seizures for commercial or industrial use have driven an estimated 70 million peasants from their farms and have been a major cause of peasant pauperisation," Pai writes.