Masses converge in search of a fortune

March 10, 1992|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Staff Writer

CANTON, China -- Sitting outside this city's train station in his fur hat and layers of dark clothes, Di Mi Hua looks a bit out of place. He also is out of work and almost out of food.

The 68-year-old peasant from Sichuan Province came to the capital of Guangdong Province in southern China in search of a job. Four days later, he is still sleeping on the pavement near the station and is feeding himself by begging at the back doors of nearby restaurants.

"I heard it was open and developing here," he says. "But there is no work for someone my age."

All Mr. Di has to console himself is a white pocket radio, three moldy oranges and the knowledge that he is far from alone.

As in years past, a ragged army of job seekers from throughout China has descended on Canton in the weeks following the Chinese lunar new year holiday -- a traditional time to launch new pursuits.

Like Mr. Di, many of them are "mangliu," or "blind migrants," with no idea where they are headed. Virtually all are rural peasants for whom there is no work back in their villages.

All are drawn by the lure of finding relative riches in China's promised land, Guangdong Province, where the world's fastest growing economy has produced the highest per capita income in China.

Their numbers are overwhelming: Since Feb. 4, the start of the lunar new year, 1.5 million peasants streamed through the Canton train station -- despite authorities' efforts to stem the tide.

The bedraggled horde represents a small part of an even larger problem for China: The nation's rural work force of 400 million is twice what is needed to farm its land.

About 100 million of these excess farmers have found jobs in China's burgeoning rural industries. But another 100 million have nothing to do -- of those, 50 million to 70 million are estimated to have hit the road in hopes of better times in China's cities. That means as much as 6 percent of China's total population is floating around the country.

The migrants are in every large Chinese city. Canton, with 4 million official residents, has at least a half-million migrants year-round; 1 million more are in Beijing and another 2 million in Shanghai.

Authorities blame the floaters for a disproportionate share of urban crimes and fear their politically volatile potential. From time to time, officials crack down on makeshift communities with arrests and beatings.

But some floaters find improved lives for themselves in the cities, taking jobs that better-educated urban Chinese will not. Most cities have bureaus where well-off urbanities can hire peasant girls as maids. In Canton, small groups of young men squat on street corners by scrawled signs offering themselves as $3.67-a-day laborers.

"I miss home, but Canton is a lot of fun," says Gu Wen HD, 20, from Henan Province to the north. He crouches behind a sign touting his willingness to "dig holes, fix toilets, carry rocks."

For peasants long bound by the land and by China's failed experiments with collectivism, this transitory life has been made possible by the economic reforms initiated in 1978 by China's senior leader, Deng Xiaoping.

These reforms allowed Chinese farmers to decide how best to use their land. And they forced peasants made redundant by more efficient farming to seek other work -- particularly in coastal areas such as Guangdong, where foreign investment created a relatively free labor market and a standard of living far beyond the dreams of China's interior.

The rise of this floating population reflects a major shift over the past decade in the relationship between the Chinese people and their government, one in which "there has been a steady increase in people seeking greater autonomy," the U.S. political scientist Lucian W. Pye wrote in the fall China Quarterly.

Migrants live outside China's system of residence permits, a chief means of political control here. They also lack ties to "danweis," or official work units on which urban Chinese typically rely for their salaries, housing, medical care and food-ration coupons.

But in many of Guangdong's larger, foreign-funded companies, the relative benefits of that autonomy are apparent. Endless rows of workers from throughout China labor long hours at repetitive, unskilled tasks in these factories -- but typically at much higher salaries and under better working conditions than in many state industries.

"They used to be happy when I paid them $31 a month," a Hong Kong investor recalls of his first Guangdong toy factory. "Now I have to build them a movie theater and a karaoke club."

But some Guangdong factories illegally employ children, and some migrants work in Dickensian conditions. When a fire struck a private textile mill in the province in June, blocked staircases prevented workers from escaping; 71 were killed. Earlier this year, three women at two poorly ventilated Guangdong toy factories died of benzene poisoning.

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