Returning migrant workers: injustice and resilience.

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Brian Hennessy. China Australia Consult. March, 2008.

You can feel the suppressed emotion, despite their blank expressionless faces. It hangs over the entrance to the Chongqing railway station like a Yangtze River fog. A grey pall of despair. A cruel prelude to a return to life as it was 30 years ago before Deng Xiao Ping’s policy of Opening and reform.

 

Returning migrant workers

After the financial crisis. Before the stimulus programme.

______________________________________________________________

Welcome home folks. Welcome back to poverty. Back home to the village, the farm, and the never-ending struggle to survive. A return to the static life, and the endless cycle of more of the same. What now, comrades?

The children: despite their migrant worker status, these youngsters benefited from an education received in the second-rate factory schools of the boom cities on the coast of China. Now however, it is back to the village school and its dull, parochial ignorance.

The isolated village school: a mud brick or rammed earth construction, with a rough stone floor, and a leaky, drafty roof. A teacher who is a high-school graduate, who instructs in the local dialect, and who has never left the district let alone the province. No textbooks. No grades. Everybody in one class chanting and learning the basics by rote. Facts for survival today at local level rather than knowledge for a future elsewhere.

20 million migrant workers have lost their jobs so far. Every day, a few thousand more of them pour out of the Chongqing Railway Station and onto the open square outside where they wait for a connecting train. Family groups squatting on the ground, sitting on their baggage, or standing around smoking those killer cigarettes and staring blankly into space. What next?

The hopes of an extended family depend on each single child. Education is the only way up and out of a miserable life in rural China. This is the primary motive for leaving the farm or the village …to earn enough money to pay for a child’s education. A good education might secure a government job for their child after graduation.

Centuries of Confucian respect for order and status has taught Chinese people that a government job is the best insurance against catastrophe, whether it be fire, famine, flood, war, or a western-style capitalist recession.

Centuries of hard experience has also taught them that the closer you are to a government job, the richer your family will be. The further away you are from the government teat, the poorer you are likely to remain.

A secondary motive is healthcare. Treatment for a serious illness costs an average of two year’s income. This is why so many rural folk suffer from treatable illnesses. If you don’t have access to affordable healthcare, how then can your early stages of cancer, heart disease, or diabetes be diagnosed and treated? This is the reality. The untreated disease progresses, and the patient dies.

The main reason for migrant worker sacrifice today however, is the desire for their child to get a government job tomorrow. This way, the future for the extended family will be a little brighter. This is how it has always been in China. This is also how we might understand local corruption.

That grasping county official whom we love to despise is respected by his extended family. They depend on him and his ability to squeeze money out of the community and into the family coffers. He is expected to educate his nephews and nieces, take care of the elderly, provide better housing, and generally raise the socio-economic status of his grateful family. It’s what you do in a country which has little social security and few laws to protect the rights of individuals. Thus family is everything. Anyone outside the family is fair game.

But the closure of factories and the mass laying-off of workers in places like Shenzhen and Guangzhou have postponed the dreams of this generation of adult migrant workers who wait patiently for the next train home to their small communities in the poor rural areas of Sichuan Province.

Their gaunt faces betray a grim acceptance of fate rather than volatile emotions of anger, revenge, or self-pity. These tough brown-skinned survivors are steeling themselves for an uncertain future again. They have been in this situation before: they know how to survive in a cruel and unjust world. That lucrative government job will have to wait awhile.

Strong, wiry men and their tired-looking wives returning home with little to show for their effort. Their entitlements disappearing with the factory owners who bolted en mass back to Taiwan after their enterprises collapsed.

And for the first time I seriously consider the potential advantages rather than the known disadvantages associated with political reunification between mainland China and Taiwan. If only to deny these exploiting, delinquent, economic opportunists their Guomindang safe haven across the Taiwan Strait.

The defeated Nationalist leader Jiang Zhe Shi (Chiang Kai Shek) and his cronies and relatives would have been proud of these criminals. This kind of behavior was one of the reasons why Mao’s communist revolution succeeded in the first place.

Is there any hope for fair compensation or natural justice for these abandoned migrant workers? None at all. This is history repeating itself. Europe exploited the same class during the industrial revolution, and now laissez-faire capitalism in nominally communist China is doing the same. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Chinese people know how to endure suffering. They have had plenty of practice. These stoic migrant workers will "ren shou" (endure). That’s the Government’s hope anyway. The alternative could be a different kind of catastrophe.

__________________________________________________

 

A quote from a modern Chinese sage:

Sheng huo:”   Western people know how to live.

Huo zhe:”       Chinese people just live.

__________________________________________________


 

 

 

 


You can feel the suppressed emotion, despite their blank expressionless faces. It hangs over the entrance to the Chongqing railway station like a Yangtze River fog. A grey pall of despair. A cruel prelude to a return to life as it was 30 years ago before Deng Xiao Ping’s policy of Opening and reform.
Welcome home folks. Welcome back to poverty.
Back home to the village, the farm, and the never-ending struggle to survive.  A return to the static life, and the endless cycle of more of the same. What now, comrades?
The children: despite their migrant worker status, these youngsters benefited from an education received in the second-rate factory schools of the boom cities on the coast of China. Now however, it is back to the village school and its dull, parochial ignorance.
The isolated village school: a mud brick or rammed earth construction, with a rough stone floor, and a leaky, drafty roof. A teacher who is a high-school graduate, who instructs in the local dialect, and who has never left the district let alone the province.
No textbooks. No grades. Everybody in one class chanting and learning the basics by rote. Facts for survival today at local level rather than knowledge for a future elsewhere.
20 million migrant workers have lost their jobs so far. Every day, a few thousand more of them pour out of the Chongqing Railway Station and onto the open square outside where they wait for a connecting train. Family groups squatting on the ground, sitting on their baggage, or standing around smoking those killer cigarettes and staring blankly into space.
What next? The hopes of an extended family depend on each single child. Education is the only way up and out of a miserable life in rural China. This is the primary motive for leaving the farm or the village …to earn enough money to pay for a child’s education.
A good education might secure a government job for their child after graduation. Centuries of Confucian respect for order and status has taught Chinese people that a government job is the best insurance against catastrophe, whether it be fire, famine, flood, war, or a western-style capitalist recession.
Centuries of hard experience has also taught them that the closer you are to a government job, the richer your family will be. The further away you are from the government teat, the poorer you are likely to remain.
A secondary motive is healthcare. Treatment for a serious illness costs an average of two year’s income. This is why so many rural folk suffer from treatable illnesses. If you don’t have access to affordable healthcare, how then can your early stages of cancer, heart disease, or diabetes be diagnosed and treated?
This is the reality. The untreated disease progresses, and the patient dies.
The main reason for migrant worker sacrifice today however, is the desire for their child to get a government job tomorrow. This way, the future for the extended family will be a little brighter.
This is how it has always been in China. This is also how we might understand local corruption.
That grasping county official whom we love to despise is respected by his extended family. They depend on him and his ability to squeeze money out of the community and into the family coffers. He is expected to educate his nephews and nieces, take care of the elderly, provide better housing, and generally raise the socio-economic status of his grateful family.
It’s what you do in a country which has little social security and few laws to protect the rights of individuals. Thus family is everything. Anyone outside the family is fair game.
But the closure of factories and the mass laying-off of workers in places like Shenzhen and Guangzhou have postponed the dreams of this generation of adult migrant workers who wait patiently for the next train home to their small communities in the poor rural areas of Sichuan Province.
Their gaunt faces betray a grim acceptance of fate rather than volatile emotions of anger, revenge, or self-pity. These tough brown-skinned survivors are steeling themselves for an uncertain future again. They have been in this situation before: they know how to survive in a cruel and unjust world. That lucrative government job will have to wait awhile
Strong, wiry men and their tired-looking wives returning home with little to show for their effort. Their entitlements disappearing with the factory owners who bolted en mass back to Taiwan after their enterprises collapsed.
And for the first time I seriously consider the potential advantages rather than the known disadvantages associated with political reunification between mainland China and Taiwan. If only to deny these exploiting, delinquent, economic opportunists their Guomindang safe haven across the Taiwan Strait.
The defeated Nationalist leader Jiang Zhe Shi (Chiang Kai Shek) and his cronies and relatives would have been proud of these criminals. This kind of behavior was one of the reasons why Mao’s communist revolution succeeded in the first place.
Is there any hope for fair compensation or natural justice for these abandoned migrant workers?
None at all. This is history repeating itself. Europe exploited the same class during the industrial revolution, and now laissez-faire capitalism in nominally communist China is doing the same. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Chinese people know how to endure suffering. They have had plenty of practice. These stoic migrant workers will "ren shou" (endure).
That’s the Government’s hope anyway. The alternative could be a different kind of catastrophe.
________________________________________
A quote from a modern chinese sage:
“Sheng huo:” Western people know how to live.
“Huo zhe:”     Chinese people Just live (survive).
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