About 150 million workers, many of them women, have migrated within China for work. This internal migration matches or exceeds the entirety of world-wide transborder worker migration in the recent past. “Factory Girls” is a newly published book which examines this Chinese migration among women. The author at one time was one of these women. the New York Times published the following review:
Published: October 21, 2008
From Village to City in a Changing China
By Leslie T. Chang
Spiegel & Grau. 420 pages. $26.
Some day the manic thrust of China’s continuing dash for development will have passed, and the quest for leisure so cherished in developed countries will become as commonplace among Chinese as their current thirst for achievement.
Perhaps by then, new heroes will have emerged to help explain how the world’s most populous nation rejoined the ranks of the rich.
For now, the familiar story line credits the former leader Deng Xiaoping (1904-97) for breaking the dismal, decades-long run of misrule and foreign subjugation, feudalism and civil war, and finally the fanatical excesses of Mao Zedong.
Often lost in the telling are the invisible foot soldiers who made China’s stirring rise possible: the country’s 130 million migrant workers, the subject of Leslie T. Chang’s “Factory Girls.” This vast and ceaselessly renewed workforce has built China’s cities, throwing up skyscrapers at a rate never seen before, and has filled China’s factories, churning out ever cheaper goods in ever greater quantities to fuel the double-digit growth that has reshaped the world’s economy.
Ms. Chang, a former China correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, describes this endless flow of labor from the hinterland to the booming cities of the east as the “largest migration in human history.” But she gives us something more personal as well, including an extended aside in which she explores her ancestors’ roots in China. The results are deeply affecting.
Her focus, as suggested by the title, are the young women who overwhelmingly staff the factory assembly lines in the new industrial supercities of the Pearl River Delta of southern China. In the course of her narrative, she builds a quiet but powerful case that through their tireless work and self-sacrifice, these women, invisible to the outside world and to most Chinese, are this era’s true heroes.
Ms. Chang’s story centers on Dongguan, a giant factory town whose population is estimated at 70 percent female, where the economy has grown at a 15 percent annual clip for two decades.
Dongguan is one of China’s hyper-dynamic new boom towns and a place seemingly without history, boasting a pseudo Ikea, pseudo K.F.C.’s and even a Hyatt hotel knockoff. Here, as in China itself, “everything is in the process of becoming something else.”
The factories are a world of brutal 12-hour shifts and minimal leave, Spartan dormitories, six-month minimum commitments enforced by the withholding of the first two months’ salary, and monthly wages that often hover in the $100 range. Fines are assessed for talking on the job, and bathroom breaks are allowed once every four hours.
Despite exploitation like this, the supply of girls willing to trade the dead-end life of the village for the cheating and discrimination of the factory appears limitless. As one chapter title puts it, to die poor is a sin.
If the steely motivation of these young women were only about securing a meager wage, this bargain would not work. One after another, they tell the author that their current jobs are merely temporary stopping places.
For nearly all, the greater goal is self-improvement, which they pursue by frequently jumping jobs, abandoning both friends and back pay as they bluff their way into better and better work.
This self-improvement is also facilitated by night school sessions, which may cost as much as a month’s salary and which the young women attend after a full shift, somehow managing the feat of showing up in a fresh change of nonfactory clothes.
The change of dress is an important part of their transformation into what they conceive of as a better class of people. Many dream of jobs as managers of some kind or, best of all, as white-collar workers.
China is locked in a Dale Carnegie era, with bookstore shelves dominated by titles purporting to explain how to gain a leg up. In Dongguan the self-improvement business that caters to the female factory worker has achieved industrial dimensions, with night schools on every street corner.
It scarcely seems to matter that most of these schools are ersatz affairs with few conventional qualifications. At one, the Dongguan Zhitong Talent Intelligence Development Company, a 17-year-old breathlessly lectures others about the perils of growing old as a lowly worker.
The women’s road from village to factory job is lined with manipulators and cheats, and the schools, which busily copy one another’s curriculums, in turn teach the virtues of lying as a means of getting ahead. “People who are too honest in this society will lose out,” one instructor told the author.
The women learn something else important along the way, and in a country that actively discourages religion, it resonates with the force of gospel: “change soon or it will be too late.”
We are a very long way from Mao Zedong, who glorified the worker and despised the managers, all the while emphasizing the importance of the collective identity over that of the individual, whose re-emergence in China is an important theme of this book.
Ms. Chang’s rich narrative takes us deep inside a country that is changing too fast for any reckoning about the outcome or even direction, and she is wise in avoiding easy conclusions or even approval.
“One day, I asked a friend: ‘What is life all about? Why are we working so hard?’ ” she quotes one worker saying. “My friend could not answer.”