HE has studied English at night and likes to call himself Jesse. The only son in a family of five children, Jesse left the farm at age 20 in search of a job. Six years later, he has little to show for it: everything he owns is with him on a narrow, metal bunk bed at a television factory in Shenzhen. There is his one suit, shiny and grey-green, hanging loosely on his skinny frame. There is a radio and some books, a few dishes, a box of papers. What's that brochure? It turns out Jesse spends his free time in direct sales for an American health-food company making a big push in southern China. That had given him ideas for getting out of the factory, he said, maybe even starting a business of hisown. Jesse has not made much money, but going back to the village is the farthest thing from his mind. ''People look down on you if you farm,'' he said. ''Why did you Americans go West? Because there were more opportunities. It's just like that in Shenzhen. To go from a farm to a city factory, to go from peasant to worker, aren't the opportunities wider?'' There are at least 80 million Jesses across China, farmers who have left their villages in search of opportunity. Jesse, who has a high school education, has better prospects than most, but all share his ambition to create a life free from the tyranny offlood, drought and government grain quotas. Since average rural incomes are less than one-third those of city-dwellers, the migrants believe they have nothing to lose. Their cheap labour has become a major factor in keeping China's economic growth at 13 per cent annually for the last two years. They turn out the shirts, sneakers and toys so familiar on US and European store shelves. They build the office towers, hotelsand highways that are transforming Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. More are always on the way, hitchhiking along highways or squeezing into rail cars. Ask why and the answer is uniform: there are no jobs at home. No one wants to farm. For the first three decades of Communist rule, the people stayed mainly where they were born, bound by a strict population registration system and travel controls. The controls relaxed enough in the 1980s to let farmers travel to cities for winter jobs, when the land was fallow. Now most urban construction workers, rubbish collectors, street sweepers, maids, bicycle repairmen, shoe-shiners and popcorn vendors are former farmers. So are most of the factory workers in such coastal boom towns as Shenzhen. Most migrants live as cheaply as possible in the cities and send money home that spurs development in the villages.