Dynamic Young Engines Driving China’s Epic Boom

Copyright The New York Times
Books of the Times – A review by Howard W. French
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.
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