Migrant workers in their own land

Times Staff Writer

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

Mao publicly idealized the hardworking peasants, and during the Cultural Revolution he sent millions of city-dwellers to the countryside to learn from them. But many historians believe his actions were driven more by politics. The best education, healthcare and other benefits often went to urbanites, laying the foundation for a deep divide between them and rural areas, where about 750 million people, 57% of China's population, lived at the end of last year.

Strict limits on people's movement persisted long after Mao's death, and with the opening of China's economy, the wealth gap has widened sharply. The average disposable income of rural residents is $405 a year, less than a third of what city residents have to spend. Combined with land grabs by corrupt local officials, pollution and a weak legal system, this has sparked growing rural discontent. In 2005, the government reported 87,000 public disturbances, up 50% in two years.

Most urban dwellers don't have a lot of sympathy for the scraggly migrants. In 2003, a college-educated garment worker named Sun Zhigang was detained and beaten to death by municipal workers in Guangzhou because he wasn't carrying a residence permit. The incident sparked national outrage and a shift in government thinking.

Beijing has started to realize its interest in social stability, productivity and a more modern, urban society dovetails with the movement of migrants trying to feed their families.

"Shanghai and Beijing couldn't survive without all these construction and service workers," said Li Shi, an economics professor at Beijing Normal University. "And their work fattens corporate profits, with cheap labor a huge incentive for foreign companies coming to China."

Rules enacted in recent years have strengthened migrant rights. But their access to basic healthcare, education and pension insurance remains limited.

"Very few migrants sever their ties to the farm, not because they don't want to move but because their human rights in the cities are not protected," said Cui Chuanyi, a rural development researcher at the State Council, China's Cabinet.

Nevertheless, planners expect several hundred million people to move from farms to cities over the next two decades. They are scrambling to slow the migration, hoping to avoid the vast ring of slums that surround mega-cities such as Mexico City, New Delhi and Lagos, Nigeria.

Greed causes problems on all sides of the equation.

Unscrupulous brokers and employers take advantage of migrants' limited education and desperation. Some labor bosses skim from the migrants' earnings or arbitrarily declare work substandard and impose financial penalties.

Another pitfall is greed and impatience among the migrants. At a Beijing construction site one weekday, workers watched a play acted, directed and written by fellow migrants based on the life of a construction worker pressured by his boss to fix high-voltage wires, even though he wasn't an electrician. The boss fled after the uninsured worker received an electric shock that left him with severe brain damage.

At the end of the play, actors gave a rundown of migrant rights and available assistance.

Li Tao, a former journalist who is no relation to Li Wen, runs the center that organized the performance. He said that the flow of money to rural areas would help bridge the divide, but that huge cultural gaps remain.

Multinational companies make matters worse, he added. "They have so much clout, and when they threaten to take their business elsewhere, Chinese companies are forced to cut prices," he said. "That leaves little for migrant workers. It's totally irresponsible."

Changing the countryside

The government says the average migrant spends eight months of the year away from home and earns about $100 a month. They to send about a third of it home, and that relatively small amount makes a huge difference.

"Families with at least one migrant worker are almost immediately lifted above the $1-a-day poverty level," said Yu Xiaoqing, human development sector coordinator with the World Bank in Beijing.

But it also means that in some villages, 80% of the working-age population is gone.

"It's rather sad," said Huang Yongqiang, 27, a migrant from Guizhou who works at a Beijing restaurant and visits Li Tao's center. "There used to be a wonderful Chinese New Year performance every year in my village. Now they stopped doing it. There's no one left."

When they return, migrants bring technology and new perspectives as well as money. Li Wen's crew routinely compares salaries and employers, and shares opportunities back home. Li proudly displays a computer and printer that he uses to map out designs for work.

His earnings have allowed him to design and build his house and furnish it with a refrigerator, washing machine and big-screen television.

Li doesn't think he would move permanently to the city, even if the rules were relaxed. He keeps a foot in the traditional world of northern Chinese agriculture, returning in October to harvest the corn, and in June to bring in the wheat.

New government policies that reduce the cost of seed and fertilizer and eliminate farm taxes help the family save about 30% of its income. But school fees are high, as is tuition for cram schools.

Li's success made his neighbors jealous. Neighbors say it also has spurred them on, but some acknowledge that their children are likely to see the real benefits.

"I was a lousy student, but my daughter is always No. 1 in her class," Wang said. "The money I save will hopefully put her through college. 'Don't be like me,' I tell her, 'or you'll never break out.' "


Gu Bo in The Times' Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.

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