Each year, 200 million workers from China’s vast rural interior travel between cities and provinces in search of employment: the largest human migration in history. This indispensable army of labour accounts for half of China’s GDP, but is an unorganized workforce—‘scattered sand’, in Chinese parlance—and the most marginalized and impoverished group of workers in the country.
For two years, the award-winning journalist Hsiao-Hung Pai travelled across China, visiting labourers on Olympic construction sites, in the coal mines and brick kilns of the Yellow River region, and at the factories of the Pearl River Delta. She witnessed the outcome of the 2009 riots in the Muslim province of Xinjiang; saw towns in rubble more than a year after the colossal earthquake in Sichuan; and was reunited with long-lost relatives, estranged since her mother’s family fled for Taiwan during the Civil War. Scattered Sand is the result of her travels: a finely wrought portrait of those left behind by China’s dramatic social and economic advances.
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An abandoned factory in Shenzen [photo by dcmaster]
In the aftermath of the Foxconn workers' riot earlier this month, the world's eyes are again cast to the worsening conditions for China's factory laborers. As recently as this week new data suggests international demand for Chinese goods is faltering, further constricting what have already been extremely limited options for workers in the country. As goods lie on production floors unused and factory owners continue to cut low-paying, high-risk jobs, it's likely the massive population of migrant laborers in China will be forced to work under even more perilous circumstances
Today in Design Observer is an excerpt from journalist Hsiao-Hung Pai's Scattered Sand, named after the Chinese term for the 200 million migrating across the country in search of just this kind of factory work. As the situation among these workers worsens, Pai's book provides a grim eyewitness account of the lives and regions impacted by the largest yearly migration in human history.
Pai explores the architecture of Guangdong, a region claiming China's "largest provincial economy" and over 60,000 factories. Though the government once claimed the region as the first to reach a per capita income of $10,000, writes Pai, "it was later discovered that this figure had not factored in the estimated 3.7 million migrant workers living and working in the city at that time." Moving from the train station where migrants first arrive to the dormitories in which they, if lucky, may spend their limited breaks, Pai finds the troubling results of the stagnating economy:
There are three to four million migrant workers living in Guangzhou, which has a total population of about ten million. Many of those I saw sleeping at the station, as well as those who might have left for their villages after a few homeless nights, were first-generation migrants who'd come to Guangzhou in the hope of higher wages and abundant opportunities. Guangzhou was meant to be a life-changing experience. As many of them told me, most had been working there for more than a decade; they had devoted their prime to this city.
Visit Design Observer: Places to read the excerpt in full and view photographs from Guangdong.
Scattered Sand, Hsiao-Hung Pai's exposé on the phenomenon of Chinese migration, has received further praise from Literary Review. In his review, Jonathan Mirsky writes with a new understanding of modern China, the China detailed in Pai’s book. The reality goes far beyond the myth of the economic miracles reportedly taking place. "Will she ever get another Chinese visa?" writes Mirsky comically, astonished by the depth of Pai's research and the accounts that can only come from first hand experience. Mirsky details Pai’s discovery of the many instances of AIDS-related deaths in China, as the blood donation trade acts as a deadly means of securing any sort of stable income for the poorest Chinese workers. Qi Cheng is one example: He sold up to 800 centilitres of blood per day and earned enough money to build three homes, but left four children behind after he and his wife died of AIDS. His story is just one of many. The aims of the book appear to have been met, with Mirsky noting that:
Pai's book is suitable for anyone with even slightly interested in China and worried about this becoming the Chinese century, and it may jolt academic specialists clinging to the conviction that the Chinese 'economic miracle' is widespread.