Darth Cheezer plucked this off the wires earlier this week, figuring
I and you all might be interested. From the /SF Chronicle/, please
------- Forwarded Message Follows -------
China's Rural Poor Take Flight
Millions of hardscrabble farmers find siren song of city irresistible
Tuesday, February 2, 1999
FIRST OF TWO PARTS
One of the greatest migrations in human history is underway in China.
At least 100 million migrant laborers roam the landscape, most of
them peasants who have left their farms and villages to seek
prosperity in the cities.
The outpouring is an unintended legacy of the late Deng Xiaoping,
whose economic reforms -- and declarations that ``to get rich is
glorious`` -- brought free enterprise, and the resultant income
disparities, to the world's most populous nation.
Today, the rural unemployed must compete for city jobs with tens of
millions of workers laid off from bloated, debt-ridden state-owned
enterprises, which China is shedding to avert financial crisis.
Fearful of growing unrest, wary of small-scale demonstrations already
taking place, the government has been cracking down on political
activists. This winter, China sentenced its fourth dissident in a
week to 10 years in prison for talking to a reporter about a farmers'
Amid this volatile mix of dreams and danger, many Chinese remain
determined to escape village life. Here are some of their stories.
Anhui -- The land spreads yellow and green, the colors of oilseed.
Undulating below prowling clouds, its brilliance belies the cruelties
of Mother Nature. Northern Anhui forms the southern tip of Zhongyang,
or the Middle Domain, cradle of Chinese civilization. To live on this
land is to survive the cycles of the Yangtze River, blessing to
curse, drought to flood.
The land is worked by a single instrument, the human body, or one
crude remove from it, through handmade hoes, shovels, tills. Each
plot is sufficiently small to accommodate what can be accomplished by
the human body within the course of a year. As such, the land has a
humanity and essence that most American farmlands -- mechanized,
corporatized, scientific -- lost long ago.
Unmediated physical labor is exerted on every inch of it -- exertion
born of hope, desperation, lack of options and the instinct for
survival. The fruits of this exertion inevitably come under the
judgment of the sky, which is never without a specter of violence.
On this land, and all over China, lies a dense constellation of
villages, home to the country's more than 900 million rural
residents. Many have fled for the gold-paved streets of coastal
cities, joining the swelling ranks of the ``floating mass'' of no
less than 100 million migrant laborers. Most are peasants from poor
agricultural provinces such as Anhui, which, besides its perpetual
cycle of natural disasters, is renowned for exporting nannies. Those
who remain in the villages work the land as best they can, or, if
they are still young and able-bodied, they plot the day when they,
too, can take flight.
A week of relentless rain and snow is increasing the sense of
isolation in Qingdong, a village of 300 in northern Anhui. The
nearest town is a 45-minute walk away. So is the region's only
telephone. Motorized transportation is all but impossible -- the
trails have turned to mud.
Sanzi, especially, feels trapped. He is barely 16, looks 14, and
cannot wait for his shot at Beijing, or Shanghai or Guangzou. Newly
graduated from junior high school, Sanzi has the suppressed, quiet
manner of a kid wanting to be an adult, but he is prone to quick
argument when his grown-up status is questioned. His parents work on
a tiny plot of land that cannot support the costs -- books, supplies,
uniform -- of sending him to high school.
If Sanzi stays in Qingdong, he is just another mouth to feed. There
is no future here other than fieldwork, and hardly any work at all
right now, the slow season. Sanzi drifts from house to house, still
wearing his old school uniform, checking on the adults playing
Most of his peers are already in the cities. ``I feel like I'm
choking here,'' he says.
A late season snowstorm has ravaged much of the oilseed. Villagers in
Qingdong glumly predict only two-thirds or half the normal harvest.
There isn't much that can be done for the battered plants except for
the occasional administration of fertilizers (human and animal
excrement spiced with ammonia powder contained in two buckets,
connected by a bamboo pole, balanced on the shoulder, carried into the
field, ladled out by hand). The yellow flowers hang anemic in defeat.
The last time it snowed this late in the season was in 1976, the year
both Chairman Mao and the much revered premier Zhou Enlai died. Like
then, snow this year hit Anhui on March 20. The villagers are uneasy
about the coincidence.
According to the nightly state television news, the government is
fully aware of the seriousness of the situation and is mobilizing all
the manpower and resources it can muster to combat the ``freeze
crisis,'' including, as the camera happily attests, high-ranking
bureaucrats toiling in a field.
The officials never show up in Qingdong.
For Chinese peasants, life is often described as ``ku,'' a word that
has no ready English equivalent. To say that a peasant's life is
arduous does not do ``ku'' full justice.
Ku is experienced in every fiber of day-to-day, minute-to-minute
living -- a constant bitterness in the mouth. For Qingdong villagers
it is compounded by a profound sense of resignation, because much of
their lives is arbitrarily determined by incomprehensible factors
such as weather and state policies.
The Economic Miracle of China has not come to the agricultural
heartland, propaganda-touting ``model villages'' notwithstanding.
Instead, peasants subsidize the miracle in the form of depressed food
The government in Beijing understands that maintaining growth and
social stability means keeping its 1.2 billion people fed. With
massive unemployment looming in the cities, food prices must be kept
low to stave off social unrest. Yet that leaves peasants little
incentive to work the land. So Beijing perpetually manipulates food
prices, alternatively to appease the urban population or, if too many
peasants are leaving the land, to lure the rural population back
home. Caught in this impossible equation, the peasants are losing out
and moving on.
In all ways, China's free market economics -- which allow
entrepreneurship while stripping away the ``cradle-to-grave''
protections of socialism -- take on ironic meaning in Qingdong. The
government still owns the land and apportions each family a parcel
according to its size. The government controls the price of grain
products; the government purchases quotas of staples such as rice.
Yet because peasants in principle work as free agents, they are left
to assume all risks.
With the free market reforms, says Wang, a retired head of the
village, some families have managed to build brick houses. But it
only takes one bad harvest to force others off the land.
Wang is nostalgic for the time under Mao, before the reforms. ``Back
then,'' he reminisces, ``even when times were bad, we at least
-- -- --
After a dreary week of snow and rain, the sky finally clears.
Xiaotou, a wiry 34-year-old with sunken eyes, heads out to the field
to dig ditches. The plot he works is about 11/4 mu, or about a quarter
of an acre. Seven raised beds of loose dirt, each about six feet
wide, run the length of the plot. The ditches alongside are now much
too inundated with mud and silt to facilitate good drainage.
Xiaotou must widen and deepen each one before planting watermelons in
a month's time. By no means is this the hardest work of the year --
that's to come during planting and harvest.
Xiaotou checks the watermelon seedlings. Runoff from the pond carries
stranded, palm-sized carp, and he stops to help village kids scoop up
bonus dishes for dinner.
A bout of high fever impaired Xiaotou's speech when he was 8, and the
slurred words mark him as somewhat of an outcast. Ayi, his mother,
laments that at 34 he should have been married long ago. No one
invites him to a game of mahjong.
But by consensus, Xiaotou is regarded as one of the hardest working
men in the village. Without him, his family would not be living in
the brick house, neighbors say. His younger brother, 26, dreams of
escape to the cities and refuses to lift a finger, spending most of
his time at the mahjong table. His parents are too old to work in the
Xiaotou sleeps in a lean-to, separate from the main house, sandwiched
between the chicken coop and the grain storage. In his room are two
baby rabbits (much prized without sentimentality: they will be sold
later), a double-size bed, a 13-inch black-and-white television, an
old bicycle, vegetables drying on a bamboo pail, farm implements, and
at night, a bucket of fertilizer, which also functions as a toilet.
The snowy television, one of the few things he can rightfully call his
own, lulls him to sleep every night.
But here in the field, he is not thinking of the rabbits and the
money they will bring, nor of the gilded world of television, nor of
the wife and kids he yearns for. The work he must now do, the same
that has been done by his father and forefathers, demands, like a
jealous God, perfect devotion.
By sheer repetition, from minutes to hours to days to years, it is
work that dulls the imagination, squeezes out hope, tames the soul.
To see Xiaotou toil on the land is to have all romanticized notions
about the nobility of physical labor pulverized:
Stand with upper body bent at 45 degrees, legs in a squat about three
feet apart. Shear the soil along the bed by making three incisive
shovel strikes on each side, loosening the dirt to mark the depth and
shape of the ditch. Bend deeper, upper torso almost parallel to the
ground; shift weight to the back leg, insert the shovel horizontally
about one foot into the earth. Tense the forearm and the small of the
back, twist the shovel slightly, tighten the abdominal muscles, lift
the load, turn 45 degrees, unload the soil on top of the bed.
Move forward three feet, body still bowed, and repeat the process
again, shearing, inserting, lifting, turning, unloading. Don't look
up for fear of breaking the rhythm.
For 3 1/4 hours, Xiaotou performs the ritual, relentless as a pilgrim
moving on bleeding knees to the altar. Salvation, if that's what this
labor can be called, always exacts something in return. Yet once it is
clear how little there is in the way of reward, the work cannot
sufficiently be described as backbreaking, but more appropriately as
On their nine mu of allotted land, about an acre and a half,
Xiaotou's family rotates crops of oilseed, watermelon and rice. On
average, one mu yields 1,180 renminbi (RMB), or just over $146 (at
8.27 RMB to a dollar) per year.
The annual tax per mu is 120 RMB -- about $15. Seed, fertilizer,
pesticide and water cost an additional 200 RMB, or $25. After
expenses, one mu yields a net profit of 860 RMB a year -- about $107.
This ``profit,'' of course, does not account for the labor costs, and
is an estimate based on the best-case scenario: no floods, droughts,
snowstorms or earthquakes.
For younger villagers, there is not much point in tilling the fields
when they can pull in a year's income in three months' time at a
factory on the coast. Or so it is said.
-- -- --
Xiaotou's family lives in a brick-and-mortar house, a good house by
the standard of Qingdong, where half the villagers still live in
shelters of straw and mud. The house comprises the living room, three
bedrooms, a separate kitchen, and the lean-to/chicken coop/grain
There is no running water, no plumbing except for the well in the
back yard, fitted with a hand pump. The outhouse -- a slit in the
ground shielded on three sides by an ad hoc coalition of leftover
bricks, mortar and mud and covered on top by tin -- is behind the
kitchen, next to the pigsty. Washing must be done outside using the
The living room is the solar plexus of the house. If life is slowly
drained away in the field, this is where what remains of living takes
place. Here, at a square wood table, the family and neighbors
congregate to eat, drink tea, play mahjong and gossip.
The breakfast of noodles, boiled eggs, chili paste and pickled daikon
has been cleared from the table. The table top, over endless
successions of breakfast, lunch and dinner, has a permanent veneer of
grease: a varnish so ingrained with the vestiges of daily living that
it is an invitation to the touch.
Forming the top are 11 planks in carelessly varying widths, black
grime marking the slight gaps between them. The four legs run
straight and unornamented, their lower halves caked with dirt. A flat
bar between each leg below the tabletop serves as a sort of a ledge on
which hangs the rag used to wipe the table. Half-smoked cigarettes
are routinely placed here during mahjong so that the wood is
irredeemably tattooed with little black hearts.
Four benches with A-shaped legs accompany the table. Their stingy
narrowness accommodates scarcely half the bum, so that no one ever
seems to sit comfortably but is always shifting about seeking relief.
Over years of patient polishing by trouser seats, the bench tops
radiate their own dry sheen.
The floor is low-grade porous concrete, capable of absorbing mud,
spit, spilled food, cigarette ashes and other abuses. Ayi, Xiaotou's
mother, sweeps it once a day, not too thoroughly, first thing in the
morning before breakfast.
Hanging on the walls are requisite posters of Hong Kong pop icons
like Andy Lau (yellowing and torn) and others featuring a smiling,
garlanded navy sailor, a female fighter pilot, and a military police
officer accompanied by the title, ``For the Good of the People.''
A ladder leaning against one wall doubles as a coat hanger.
Underneath it are two stools. At night, just before bed, the family
members sit on them and take turns soaking their feet in the precious
hot water. During winter this is as much as they get in the way of
The only other furniture in the room is a cabinet, which by its
placement -- underneath a giant poster depicting a purposeful
Chairman Mao accompanied by a sagacious Premier Zhou -- resembles
more of an altar. Inside it sit two bottles of a vodka-like,
incendiary-smelling, 10 RMB liquor, one full, the other half-empty. A
small black-and-white television, rarely turned on, perches on top of
the cabinet among bleeding size-C batteries, a flashlight, an oil
lamp, matches and a dried up Magic Marker.
Ayi, who rises before anyone else in the house, takes a moment's
reprieve from house chores and quietly sips tea by the table. The
mason jar is held in palms close to the chest: it is the only
external source of warmth in the unheated house.
Soon, she will have to make the fire ready for lunch; the tranquility
of the room will succumb to the noisy ritual of mahjong. But for now,
only the echoes of past lives and dreams of the future reverberate
within the half-made world of light and half-light.
Ayi gets up and goes into the kitchen, taking her tea with her.
-- -- --
On the morning of his last day in the village, Sanzi wakes at dawn to
go to the market. He wants to be there early enough to get the
freshest picks for his last meals at home before leaving for the
city. Walking behind neighbors, the land still shrouded in fog, he
amuses himself by jumping back and forth across ditches in the field.
Once at the market, neighbors help him do the bargaining -- he's too
young to haggle very effectively. He wonders out loud if markets in
America are anything like this: a path as wide as a man's body full
of jostling people and oozing earth, vendors on both sides selling
spinach, Chinese broccoli, cauliflower, green onions, garlic, daikon,
carrots, bananas, pears and, displayed on a plastic tarp on the
ground, a half-dead fish flopping in mud.
The youngest of three brothers, Sanzi (meaning the third son) is the
only one in the family who has not worked in a city before. After a
failed attempt at starting a lumber business near Shanghai, his
father is back in the village working the family plot. To get out of
debt incurred by the business venture, Sanzi's mother and two older
brothers went to Shanghai to work in a hotel kitchen, each pulling in
450 RMB a month -- about $56 -- plus room and board, but that lasted
only a year: the mother's poor health forced their return. Now the
second brother, 18, is serving in the navy and the big brother, 19,
is waiting for the ``right opportunity'' to have another go at the
One of the big brother's old bosses has sent for Sanzi in the
meantime, telling the family there might be ``some job'' for him in
Guangzou. The boss promised to pick up Sanzi at the Guangzou train
station. Wear your brother's white windbreaker, he instructed. Wait
for me at the main exit.
-- -- --
On the day of his departure, Sanzi climbs out of the bed he shares
with his brother, for the last time. He puts on a pair of trousers at
least two sizes too big at the waist and carefully polishes a pair of
shoes, also too big, passed down from his brother. The windbreaker is
safely tucked away in the duffel bag. Before he gets on the bus, his
father buys him a 5 RMB haircut.
On the way to town, Sanzi's father tries to instill some last words
of wisdom: Be good and obedient to the boss, don't quarrel with
coworkers, a youngster must experience hardship to become a man.
Sanzi only pretends to listen. He is too excited with the prospect of
leaving and too preoccupied with not muddying his shoes. He is also a
little drunk with the two bowls of beer neighbors forced on him as a
goodwill gesture at breakfast.
Guangzou is the festering abscess that straddles the mouth of the
Pearl Delta. Though it is the first of China's coastal cities to
``modernize'' under the government reforms of the 1980s -- and one of
the most prosperous -- it still resembles a frontier town, full of
small-time hustlers and prostitutes, transient businessmen and Hong
Kong-style tycoons, destitution and extreme wealth.
Guangzou is also the poster child for no-holds-barred capitalism.
Every day, thousands of peasants pour into the city hoping to cash in
on the action. Greeting them at the train station are equal numbers of
compatriots spit out by the merciless logic of the market economy and
on their way back to the countryside.
At the station exit, attendants from nearby hotels accost passengers
(``Only 280 RMB for a night of three-star luxury''). Temperatures
hover in the high 80s. Sanzi stumbles outside, subdued by the 26-hour
ride on a hard seat in the crowded fourth-class. Perspiration soils
his shirt collar; his hair resembles a bird nest.
A few men walk around holding placards with names scribbled on them.
Sanzi does not find his name. He puts on the windbreaker.
After 20 minutes, the rush of disembarking passengers has thinned to
a trickle. Sanzi sits down on his bag in the shade of a taxi stand.
The hotel attendants make a couple of passes. He ignores them and
stares into the distance. The new surroundings -- blaring taxis,
women in spiked heels and miniskirts, men brandishing pagers and
cell phones, billboards hawking air conditioners -- fail to impress
him much. He is on a mission. His brother told him not to wander from
the exit. The boss is not here, but there is nothing to do but wait.
``He must show up,'' Sanzi mutters to himself. Surely he will be
recognized by the windbreaker, but is this the right exit?
An hour and a half later the boss pulls up in an early-90s black
Cadillac. He motions for the windbreaker. Sanzi jumps up and grabs
his bag. ``How was the train ride?'' asks the boss, a man as sharp as
his Hong Kong haircut. Sanzi wants to know about the job. The boss is
noncommittal, only saying that Sanzi will be part of a construction
crew working for a friend of his. But, seeing how slightly built young
Sanzi is, the boss is not sure. Can Sanzi handle the hard labor?
``Oh, yes I can. Of course I can,'' Sanzi fires back, barely
containing himself as he gets into the car. ``I grew up in the
village doing hard labor,'' he says, and slams the door. A stream of
taxis headed for the city swirls around them. The caddy pulls away and
c1999 San Francisco Chronicle Page A1
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