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Scattered Sand: The Story of China's Rural Migrants

Firsthand report on the largest migration in human history

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.

Reviews

  • “Pai’s book is exceptional not only in the depth of her research, but also in giving a voice to the people she befriends. Essential to understand the human reality behind China’s so-called economic miracle.”
  • “Hsiao-Hung Pai's intrepid journalism is one of the most revealing guides to contemporary China.”
  • “Pai, diligent to the end, and writing out of love rather than hatred for China, holds on to the hope that resistance is fertile.”
  • “Eloquent and wide-ranging, Scattered Sand not only does justice, eloquently and comprehensively, to [migrant workers'] increasingly marginal position in Chinese society, it also provides useful whirlwind introductions to Chinese labor policy, local government corruption, and minority discrimination, among other issues.”
  • “The product of thorough reporting among China’s most marginalised citizens shows what can be discovered despite official obstruction.”
  • “What Pai accomplishes is that difficult thing: to combine deftly personal testimonies with statistics. One never wonders, after some particularly ghastly first-person observation, whether this is too awful to be generally true.”
  • “Scattered Sand captures the sadness, resilience and anger of China’s millions of internal and international migrants. This illuminating book effortlessly interweaves individual voices, rarely heard by English-speaking audiences, with the history, politics and economics that shape migrants’ stories and their choices.”
  • “Hsiao-Hung Pai brings her knowledge of China’s history to this detailed examination of the plight of the millions of peasants searching for work in China’s booming cities and, failing that, in other countries … A grim but keen view of the dark underside of China’s prosperity.”
  • “The Chinese 'miracle' gets a reality check in this engrossing exposé...A moving contribution to the growing literature on the new China, the book will prove relevant for anyone interested in ongoing debates around migrant labor in a globalized economy.”
  • “It focuses on contemporary China, where the scale of rural migration – over 130 million men and women have left their home provinces in search of work – makes the demographic debates about modern-day Europe seem parochial and hysterical. It pays tribute to a class of people that, although exalted under Mao as a revolutionary vanguard, has constantly to face the threat of pauperisation. It amplifies sounds – plaintive chants, desperate petitions, exhausted prayers, sceptical curses – that are often drowned out by the stentorian boosterism of the state loudspeaker.”
  • “In documenting lives and deaths of stunning deprivation and equally stunning dignity, [Pai] is helped considerably by her style, which is restrained and workmanlike. She has no axe to grind and will not stoop to pity; she is here to tell us what is happening in the fields and factories of the world we share.”

Blog

  • One Day Without Us—A Migrant Solidarity Reading List

    Today, the petition to rescind President Trump’s state visit to Britain signed by 1.8 million people will be debated in Parliament. Stop Trump demonstrations are planned for this evening across the country and are expected to draw more than 10,000 people to stand together in solidarity with migrants and against racism and Islamophobia.

    Trump’s racist, Islamophobic, anti-refugee and anti-immigrant politics are the same driving forces as those behind the Brexit vote to leave the EU. In the context of the rise of reactionary and xenophobic politics worldwide, the Stop Trump programme of opposition is a joint effort with the One Day Without Us movement, staging its first day of action today. Tens of thousands of migrants and their supporters are staging a walkout from workplaces and places of education to celebrate the contribution migrant workers make to British society. In particular, the action aims to highlight their importance to the British economy: withdrawing their labour for a day would cost the UK £328m – 4% of the country’s GDP.

    The British government is not just complicit with Trump's agenda: Theresa May has been a trailblazer in ramping up anti-migrant measures for years before her ascent to the premiership in her role as Home Secretary when she notoriously brought in 'go home' vans. While it debates the terms of Brexit, the government continues to run a brutal and inhumane detention system; demonise and deport migrants; refuse refugees, and extend the border regime deeper into British society, into our hospitals, schools and workplaces.

    Verso presents a reading list of books that challenge and expose right-wing narratives about migrant workers and refugees by contextualising crises rooted in the violence of capitalism, legacies of colonialism and war waged by the West. This selection includes books that provide us with histories of resistance from which we can draw strength and inspiration for the fightback ahead.

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  • Juridified Dispossession: Brexit, Migrant Workers and the Law

    What are the implications of Brexit for workers’ rights? Gracie Mae Bradley examines how state power creates a paradigm of juridified dispossession where government immigration law and policy tacitly sanction the exploitation of migrant workers, while at the same time encouraging a ‘hostile environment’ extending into the fabric of daily life. Brexit’s legal challenges threaten the rights of migrant workers further, but where there is fragmentation and change, new possibilities for solidarity and resistance can emerge.

    Gracie Mae Bradley is a human rights worker and sometime writer. She is a Project Manager at the Migrants' Rights Network and also helps coordinate the Against Borders for Children campaign.

    When we talk about workers’ rights, which workers and which rights do we really mean? Legal rights are only one component of justice and the good life, and the law itself does not contain all that is meaningful about rights. But Brexit has pitched workers into a battle with the UK government to prevent it from rolling back long-held employment rights once Britain leaves the EU, and resistance must take into account the law as much as government policy, politics, or what is happening in the streets.  

    Theresa May has vowed to end the European Court of Justice’s (CJEU) jurisdiction in the UK: the Great Repeal Bill (GRB) is an historic proposal to end the authority of EU law and ‘take back control’. On ‘Brexit day’, EU law will be absorbed into UK law “wherever practical.” Of course, what is practical for the government is not necessarily practical for workers.

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  • From Illusion to Empire: Chuang on The Creation of the Chinese Economy

    Chuang is a collective of communists who consider the “China question” to be of central relevance to the contradictions of the world’s economic system and the potentials for its overcoming. Our goal is to formulate a body of clear-headed theory capable of understanding contemporary China and its potential trajectories. In this first issue, we outline our basic conceptual framework and illustrate the current state of class conflict in China. We also include translated reports and interviews with the proletarians engaged in these struggles, pairing our theory with primary sources drawn from class dynamics that might otherwise remain abstract.

    The selection below comes from our centerpiece article on the socialist era, “Sorghum and Steel: The Socialist Developmental Regime and the Forging of China,” the first in a three part economic history of China. The full first issue including this article will be released in print and online in a few months. To read more, including a sample article from the issue, visit our website.

    Chuang Issue 1 is now available to purchase from AK distro, here.

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