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August 2003 Volume 10 Number 4
Chinese Economy's Underside: Abuse of Migrants
August 26, 2003<< back
THE WORLD'S SWEATSHOP: MIGRANT DESPAIR
Chinese Economy's Underside: Abuse of Migrants
By JOSEPH KAHN
New York Times
[H]ANGZHOU, China - From his precarious perch 60 feet above morning rush
hour, Wang Fulin watched the restless crowd below. Arms were drawing
arches in air, he recalled. They wanted a swan dive. People were chanting,
Enraged and afraid, Mr. Wang had scaled the metal frame of a billboard to
call attention to his grievances. It was his first day in this bustling
east coast city, his first trip outside his home province in southwest
China. He had been neglected, robbed and abused. Now they wanted blood.
In the end he does not remember how he slipped. He recalls only waking up
in a hospital bed with three cracked ribs, a broken hip and a shattered
ego. "I told those people that I'm a good man, not a bad man, that I just
needed help," he said. "But I could not believe in anybody, and nobody
believed in me."
The six-story plunge was the coda of a two-day cross-country odyssey, a
personal tale of desperation emblematic of the gamble every Chinese migrant
worker takes, leaving family behind to live on the fringes of urban society
with limited access to housing, education, medical care and the courts.
Migrant workers are China's untouchables. They are assumed to be behind
every unsolved crime. They are the yokels on the street corners of every
city, barely able to speak Mandarin Chinese, wide-eyed with fascination or
They are also the dark underside of China's economic success, which has
been marked by annual growth of 8 percent for more than a decade and
exports to the United States growing so fast that they have surpassed
Japan's. In general these people are vulnerable, pliable, cheap to employ
and easy to suppress.
The migrant workers number well over 100 million, staffing the factories of
Asia's export powerhouse. They work long hours in dangerous jobs for low
salaries and no benefits. They are barred from forming unions - the
Communist Party allows just one union, its own - and liable to be fired on
a boss's whim.
They would not come to the cities if the opportunities did not outweigh the
dangers, and the government has taken steps to stop systematic abuses.
Beijing recently abolished a law that allowed the authorities to detain
rural workers and send them home without legal proceedings.
Yet even the official news media offer regular examples of their extreme
distress. There are migrants who threaten suicide when they are not paid.
Some are preyed on by job agents or forced into sex slavery. Migrants say
the police often beat them for minor infractions, like forgetting to carry
an identity card.
"To them we are nothing," said Wang Xiaozhen, 48, a migrant worker in
Hangzhou. "They don't take our lives seriously."
Ms. Wang says she was selling fruit on a sidewalk one day in February when
patrolmen approached. She scurried away, knowing officials did not permit
vendors there. But she says the patrolmen gave chase and beat her severely,
causing nerve damage in her neck and back and making it impossible for her
She now spends her days in a Hangzhou park, lying on a wooden roller bed
and begging for change. A Hangzhou police duty officer said he had no
knowledge of Ms. Wang or her complaint. He also declined to comment on the
case of Wang Fulin, who is not related to Ms. Wang.
It was money that persuaded Mr. Wang to leave his lush but poor mountain
village in Guizhou Province and travel 1,250 miles to Hangzhou, near
Shanghai. He arranged to take a job making cardboard shipping containers
for $72 a month, enough to send cash back to his ailing father and his two
Instead he was caught in a psychological drama worthy of Hitchcock, with
clever crooks, derelict police officers and naïve miscalculation. Instead
of sending money home, he has relied on relatives to raise $1,500 for his
medical care, two years' salary at the box factory.
He seemed hale and steady enough before leaving home, relatives said. His
sparkling brown eyes, round cheeks and soft lisp make him appear younger
than his 30 years. As an only son with a chronically ill father, he tended
the family plots alone. He once recruited volunteers to build a five-mile
road that eased the isolation of his mountainside hamlet.
This year, though, Mr. Wang needed cash to pay school fees for his
6-year-old son and buy medicine for his father. Mr. Wang's wife left first.
She found a job making light-bulb filaments in Hangzhou. She phoned to say
a relative had found a job for Mr. Wang nearby.
The day after summer planting was done, he set out, first by foot along the
road he built to Nanlong, then by bus to the provincial capital, Guiyang,
where he caught the long-haul K-112 train.
It was trying from the start. His $17 ticket was for standing room on the
36-hour trip, and he could not find a spare seat. He was leaning against
the bulkhead of car No. 8, around midnight on the second day, when he heard
a fellow passenger whisper, "It's about to get crazy."
A group of men with neatly combed hair and leather shoes had begun working
their way through the darkened cabin. Mr. Wang watched them pull down bags
from the overhead rack and search the contents, pocketing money and
Soon they spotted Mr. Wang, awake and afraid. They peppered him with
questions about where he was from, how much money he was carrying, where he
was going. Mr. Wang said he had answered honestly. He was a country boy
with very little money. His cousin was meeting him at the Hangzhou station.
"They accused me of hiding wads of cash, maybe inside my pants," Mr. Wang
said. "They said I looked like a sly guy." He said he had stripped off his
pants to prove he had nothing strapped to his legs. But a man with a mobile
phone, the apparent ringleader, kept harassing him.
"He called someone and told them he had a big catch," Mr. Wang recounted.
"He said they should meet me at the station - bring some drugs to knock me
If they were trying to frighten him it worked, maybe too well.
When the conductor announced that the train was nearing Hangzhou, Mr. Wang
darted from car to car to find a railroad policeman who was aboard. He
found him in the cafe car, chatting with two train workers. Mr. Wang
hurriedly explained that bad people were plotting to steal his money. He
needed an escort off the train.
The policeman, Mr. Wang said, asked just one question, "How much money do
Mr. Wang said he was a poor man with nothing. The policeman waved his hand
to indicate he had heard enough and walked away. But the rail workers
stayed. One grabbed him from behind. The other ordered him to turn his
pockets inside out. Mr. Wang said he produced a small wad of bills, his
travel money, and put it on the table. A worker pocketed the cash. The two
then dragged him to the caboose. A door was flung open. He was cast into a
rail yard near the Hangzhou station.
His instinct was to flee. He scampered up the rail yard wall, losing his
sandals in the climb. Breathless and barefoot, he had arrived in downtown
Hangzhou. Mr. Wang said he had thought of going to the factory where his
wife worked. But did not have the exact street address, and he had no
money. He thought of finding his cousin at the station but worried that the
crooks awaited him there.
A shop owner let him use a phone. He dialed the police emergency number,
but in his home province, Guizhou. "I couldn't understand what people were
saying in Hangzhou," he explained. The operator notified the Hangzhou
An hour later officers went to the store. He told them about the robbers,
the uncaring policeman, the thieving train workers. He needed help, money,
a phone. The police looked at him skeptically. Maybe they did not
understand him, with his Guizhou accent. They told him someone else would
come to handle his case.
No one came. He wandered the street, wondering what to do. Then he saw a
billboard, an ad for Hang- zhou's annual festival on West Lake, hanging
prominently over a major boulevard.
"My idea was to go up there and make a scene," Mr. Wang said. "Then I could
explain what happened and demand that they contact my family."
He climbed a ladder to the top. To attract attention, he took off his
jacket and tossed it down to passers-by. His shirt followed, then his belt.
His pants fell to his ankles, so he took them off too. He stood on the
billboard in his baby blue skivvies, shouting to people below.
Pedestrians stopped and gawked. Soon, reporters and firefighters were on
the scene. "I have parents and children - I don't want to die," he yelled,
according to one local report. But one bystander shouted back, "When you
dive, make it a pretty one." Others joined in chorus: "Jump, jump!"
Firefighters tried talking him down, offering food and water. But when
several rescue workers began climbing toward him at once, Mr. Wang
scrambled to an edge, apparently looking for an escape. Then he tumbled. A
hanging roll of canvas beneath the billboard checked his fall. He landed on
a patch of grass.
Mr. Wang is now back in Guizhou. His wife, who found out about the accident
from a newspaper report, moved him closer to home, where the hospital fees
He says he has decided that he just had bad luck. The next time he goes to
the big city it will be different. And there will be a next time, given
that his family, once merely strapped for cash, is now deeply in debt.
"For our kind of people," he said, "there's no other choice.'