When we interviewed her for last month’s Socialist Review, Hsiao-Hung Pai asked why would anyone be interested in a travelogue, but she should not be so modest, since describing this excellent book as a travelogue is a bit like calling the M62 the Oldham bypass.
This book gives a voice to the voiceless, the millions of rural workers who travel across China in search of work – the biggest migration in human history. Pai earns the trust and confidence of the people she meets and interviews. The stories they tell her are the real stories behind the Chinese boom. Stories of hardship, of constant insecurity, harassment, debt, poor health and families forced to live apart with no redress when their bosses fail to pay them for months on end.
For two years Pai travelled thousands of miles through China, visiting and interviewing migrant workers from the labour markets in north east and central China, to the coal mines and brick kilns of the Yellow River region, and the factories of the Pearl River Delta and then to the far north western region of Xinjiang where she spoke to the members of the oppressed Uighur community.
As well as the heartbreaking stories, the book is full of little gems that can be quoted every time some boss or Tory says we should be more like China: “Half of the countries wealth has gone to the top fifth of the population whereas the bottom fifth received only 4.7 percent. Two hundred and four million peasants in China, one sixth of the population, lives on less than 1.25 dollars a day.”
However, despite the horror of the lives of the individuals she meets Pai is optimistic about the future, arguing that there is growing discontent among the younger generation of migrant workers who have a better education and higher expectations than their parents. She reports that the effects of the world recession have resulted in job losses and wages not being paid. In Guangdong, when faced with this, many migrant workers have taken to the streets.
The number of disputes has increased sharply over the last few years. The authorities refer to demonstrations, riots, protests and petitions as “mass incidents”. The number of these “mass incidents” has increased from 74,000 in 2004 to 120,000 in 2008.
This book clearly shows that the so-called “socialism with Chinese characteristics” is little more than a variant of brutal capitalism, but also that migrant workers are now beginning to look for a collective solution.
As Nick Broomfield says on the dust cover, “An incredibly moving book that in turn angers and saddens and above all makes you want to change things”.
Buy it, read it, quote it and then share it with your friends.
Scattered Sand is published by Verso, £16.99
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