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Migrant workers in their own land

More rural Chinese are toiling in the cities to improve their lot. But as China thrives on their labor, they pay a price.

December 17, 2006|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

SANJIATUAN, CHINA — When he swings open the front gate on one of his brief visits home, Li Wen reveals a two-story white-brick house with bright tile mosaics of trees and pagodas. It contrasts sharply with the mud walls and rusted tin roofs more common in his village.

Over the last 15 years, Li has earned a living remodeling hotels and restaurants; building gleaming offices and luxury apartments in Beijing. His labor has allowed him to fix up his house while contributing to dramatic changes in China's booming capital.

And his willingness to leave home to do it has helped China's Communist authorities manage one of the most destabilizing elements of their country's headlong rush into the 21st century: finding work and a chance at prosperity for hundreds of millions of people tied to villages far from the business centers and export-oriented factories of the coastal areas.

Though he never crosses international borders, Li's experience mirrors that of many of the world's millions of migrant laborers, a workforce that the World Bank estimates sent home $250 billion last year, far more than all foreign aid: Work hard in a distant city for months at a stretch. Miss your children's birthdays, your friends' weddings, everyday banter around the table. Scrape, borrow and save enough to build a house, spurring admiration and jealousy back home.

China's estimated 120 million internal migrants make up almost 10% of the country's population and constitute what some experts say is the largest peacetime movement of humanity in history. These hardworking people are as essential to the Chinese economic miracle as tiny streams are to the mighty Yangtze River.

Even as their backs and biceps build the 21st century skylines of Beijing and Shanghai, the estimated $35 billion they send home helps bail out a government that pays lip service to socialism but no longer ensures the full employment, universal healthcare and comprehensive education promised by Chairman Mao.

In the new China, many people are going where the jobs are. More than 30% of the population of some rural areas is gone at any one time. Local officials regard their earnings as so crucial and so productive that they refer to these economic foot soldiers as "factories without chimneys."

Opting for change

For Li, the draw of working in the big city was as much about expanding his horizons as expanding his pocketbook.

His parents didn't have the money to pay tuition for four kids, so Li quit school after 9th grade for construction work in his native Hebei province, several hours from Beijing. But in 1992, with two young sons and a wife to support, he opted for a change.

With little more than the clothes on his back, he boarded a crowded train for Beijing. He spent the next several years doing interior renovations for hotels and restaurants, earning about $60 a month.

It was a tumultuous time. The Tiananmen massacre had occurred just three years earlier. And although Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms were already well underway, the economy still was dominated by state-run companies. Many were badly managed; some went bankrupt. When they did, workers like Li often didn't get paid.

Even so, his wages crept upward. Disciplined and modest, Li avoided alcohol, cigarettes and the "escort girls" who frequently drained other migrants' pockets. He sent most of his earnings home.

In 1999, he started organizing trustworthy but unemployed friends from back home into work crews, boosting his own income as well as that of his friends.

Wang Zhijun, 34, a crew member from a nearby village, earns about 30% more since he started working for Li. He tries to send home all but about $20 of his monthly $190 in earnings.

He said that Li is like a brother. They need to be, given that the men are together nearly 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for a month or more. They sleep and cook on the site's concrete floor. After a 10-hour shift, they take turns making the evening meal.

"My specialty is potato slices with green peppers," said Li, standing beside a cheap suitcase and a thin blanket laid out over corrugated cardboard, their makeshift bed.

Occasionally, as the men lay marble tiles in a new, luxury apartment building with a striking view of a mountaintop pagoda, they reflect on the enormous wealth gap between themselves and the future owners of the apartments. The older crew members seem resigned to it.

But Sun Huan, 20, the youngest crew member, acknowledged some resentment.

"It's unfair," he said. "If I had been born in the city, I might have chances too."

Urban-rural divide

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