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What happened to the men who built China?

What happened to the men who built China?

In the late 1980s and early 1990s tens of millions of Chinese farmers set out to make their fortunes along that country’s coast. This first generation of migrant workers transformed China, building its skyscrapers, manning its factories and digging its mines. But where are they now, and did their dreams come true? By MALCOLM MOORE.

Cheng Guorong sits stiffly and silently on his bed, staring into space. When he lights himself a cigarette, his hands shake.

Seven months ago, the 34-year-old man was living rough in the eastern port of Ningbo, eating food out of bins and scraping tobacco out of butts to roll into new cigarettes. In March, however, he briefly became one of the most famous people in China after a candid photograph of him was posted on the Internet, wandering through the city with his cheekbones framed by cigarette smoke.

His striking looks won him the nicknames “Brother Sharp” and “China’s Sexiest Tramp”. After his fame spread, local government officials tracked him down and rescued him. He became such a sensation that several different families popped up claiming to be his relatives. His real family had to prove they knew him by revealing they were aware of a scar concealed underneath his matted hair.

Today, he is back in his hometown living with mother and two sons in a village near Poyang Lake in Jiangxi province. His wife and father were killed in a car crash two months before he became famous. The trauma of his years in Ningbo still haunts him and he rarely speaks.

“He shows his affection for us through his actions,” his 22-year-old cousin, Cheng Si, says. “For example, he always serves us the best cuts of meat at the dining table with his chopsticks,” she adds. She insists he is not mentally-disturbed, and that a psychiatrist has seen him and claims his condition is reversible. Nevertheless, Cheng now measures out his days in cigarettes, and whatever happened to him as a migrant worker on the coast seems to have destroyed much of his spirit.

Cheng was 16 when he went out to work in 1992. Although only in his mid-30s, that makes him, in terms of timing, part of the first generation of workers to leave China’s countryside and seek their fortunes on the coast.

The “first generation” of Chinese migrants are now anywhere from their mid-30s to mid-60s, but share an ability to “chi ku” or eat bitterness that younger migrants are often said to lack. The second generation has grown up more fragile, with high expectations and an impatient urge to better themselves. In terms of attitude, Cheng belongs squarely to the first generation. He seems strong and wiry, silent and self-contained. And when I interviewed him earlier this year, I realised there must be many more like him, men who sweated and toiled to build modern China, but who had failed to find the dream they were seeking.

The first migrant workers, in the communist era, emerged in the early 1980s after Deng Xiaoping’s government began to break up China’s centrally-planned system. Instead of collective farming, each family was given a quota to fill. When officials stopped the minimum grain allowance, many farmers left their wives to work the land and began to move to urban areas to look for ways to boost their incomes.

Photo: A miner smokes a cigarette during a break at a coal mine in Changzhi, Shanxi province November 25, 2009. REUTERS

The No.1 Document, issued in 1984 by the Communist Party’s central committee turned the trickle into a flood, allowing farmers the right to work and live in cities. Despite not being able to claim any healthcare, pension or education in the cities, as many as 30,000 migrant workers flocked every day to Sichuan’s railway stations by the end of the 1980s, all boarding trains to a better life somewhere else. By 1989 about 30 million farmers had left to become migrant workers. The number doubled by 1993 and then doubled again by the end of 2006 to 131.8 million.

Life in the country was grim. Infant mortality in some rural areas was six times higher than in China’s cities. Malnutrition was widespread and there was little hope of an education. According to the 1982 census, almost three-quarters of the people in the countryside had not made it past primary school. The same census also revealed that a quarter of China’s government officials had no high school education and only 6% had a degree.

Unskilled, but hardworking, the migrants slotted into the thousands of construction sites and factories around south and east China and today migrants make up more than 70% of China’s builders, 68% of its factory workers and 80% of its coal miners. It is migrants who have transformed the country, churning out cheap goods for the West and erecting the skyscrapers that wow foreigners.

For almost all of them the dream is to make enough money to build a house or start a business in their hometown and to send back enough money to support their parents.

Across China, it is easy to spot the ones who have been successful. Their large houses often stick out from the drab buildings surrounding them, secured with ornate gates and boasting an array of flat-screen televisions, computers and washing machines.

“The first generation of migrants was hardworking, tough and responsible,” says Liu Kaiming, founder of the Institute of Contemporary Observation in Shenzhen. “They were the backbone of families and built all the new houses in rural areas. There was little economic option for them. The annual income you can have by farming land is around 10,000 yuan and your profit from that is only a few thousand. In cities you can turn at least 10,000 yuan of profit.”

Chen Kaiqing, 52, and his family run the First Class Pavilion Noodle Shop in a back-alley housing compound in central Shanghai. “We came to Shanghai from Fujian in the 1990s after borrowing money from our family and friends to set up a dried mushroom stall,” he says. After eight years, the family switched to running a restaurant, and is keen to stay in Shanghai.

“We never had big ambitions. We wanted to make a small amount of money and we did. We think we have fulfilled our dream and are satisfied with life here,” he says. “A lot of our town folk also went out and some of them did very well, even managing to buy a house before the financial crisis struck,” he adds.

Of course, not all returnees have been successful. Some have returned to find there were no customers left in their hometowns for their entrepreneurial businesses. “I know some who set up small businesses with their savings, but those businesses failed because everyone has now left the countryside for the cities. And their savings got eaten away,” says Liu. “By and by their wives could not stand it anymore and left them facing a very dim future.”

Photo: A worker carries rocks on his back in front of the Three Gorges Dam located northwest of Yichang city in Hubei Province, central China. REUTERS/David Gray

As they reach late thirties, forties and fifties, the first generation of migrants is beginning to outlive its usefulness, unable to shoulder the same backbreaking labour that they once did. Instead of moving up in the world, many of them have found themselves moving in the opposite direction.

“More than half of them have gone back home as they got too worn out to continue,” says Liu. “Some of those also needed to go home to look after the older people in their families. The majority of these returnees are now working for small workshops in their home counties, some have started their own businesses and a very small number have gone back to farming. Some have moved in the opposite direction from the coasts, moving westwards to pick cotton in Xinjiang or digging coal in the north.”

“But in their old age, they have no social welfare, no savings and no medical insurance. And they do not know how to fight for their rights. Most of them are doing work the new generation turns its nose up at.”

The migrants who remain on the coast have seen themselves move inexorably down the value chain. For years they were a source of cheap labour for Chinese companies, now they are a source of cheap labour for municipalities, who often pay them below the minimum wage to sweep the streets or collect rubbish. “The first generation migrants can still earn more in the cities than at home. After all, they do not have much education and are not as forward and aggressive as the younger generation. Activists like me have approached them many times to help them fight for their rights, but they do not get engaged,” said Xiao Qinshan, a labour activist in Shenzhen.

“But the situation is that companies in Guangdong rarely hire anyone over 40 and foreign-invested companies rarely hire anyone over 35. So the first generation workers are doing menial jobs – they are cleaners or neighbourhood guards. And the cost of living is rising. In the old days, 10 yuan would have lasted a while, but today you can buy barely anything with it. There are tens of millions of these people in China’s cities, but no one seems to care. No newspapers report about them, and they remain disadvantaged and invisible,” he says.

Chen Zhihua, 39, works in Shanghai as a bao’an, or guard, for an apartment block. “I left home in 1992 and worked on a building project in Shanghai for a while. Then I went to make shoe heels in a factory in Wenzhou. That was a good job – I made between 3,000 yuan and 5,000 yuan a month – but eventually I had a stomach illness and had to leave. Now I get 2,000 yuan a month with free accommodation and food. Considering my age and experience, this is a crappy job,” he says.

“There are not many options for us,” says He Jian, a 39-year-old construction worker in Shanghai. “I would rather stay on the building site than work in a factory and farm work is just as physically demanding as this. We rural folk always look older than our real age anyway.”

In the aftermath of the financial crisis, coastal factories desperate for workers have filled their production lines, and this has created new openings for migrants. Meanwhile, many employers have come to realise that the first generation of workers was far tougher than the coddled generation that replaced it. “Most of the workers on site are about my age. The young people can’t stand the hard work,” says He.

Photo: Construction workers take a rest on temporary bunk beds erected on a half-finished factory floor after a hard day constructing and outfitting new factory buildings for Foxconn in a new manufacturing facility in Zhengzhou, in Henan province in central China August 10,2010. Foxconn, a unit of Hon Hai and one of China’s largest manufacturers which makes electronics products like iPhones for Apple, has been scrambling to build a new manufacturing base in central China amid rising wages and labour shortages in China’s coastal regions. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu.

Meanwhile, the scars left on this generation by poor safety and chronic overwork are only just beginning to emerge. Experts believe the number of first-generation migrants who suffered injuries while working on the coast could run into the millions. The government is working on better universal healthcare specifically to look after these people, but so far there are barely any benefits available.

“They have a rural cooperative medical service, which is of a low standard in terms of diagnosis and treatment, and which provides only 20%-30% reimbursement of their bills. To get this service, you have to pay 10 to 20 yuan a year in your home town,” explains He Wenjiong, head of the Social Security research unit at Zhejiang University. “But in general you do not get treated for light illnesses and since you only get 30% of your bills back, you still cannot afford to go to hospital for serious problems.”

Some of the first generation have workplace injury insurance paid for by their employers, and companies generally cover the full cost of treatments incurred on site. But if the injuries only emerge later, such as lung disease or chronic musculoskeletal pain, it remains nearly impossible to get treatment or to get employers to admit responsibility after the event. “Quite a large number of first-generation workers are having difficulties because of injuries and sickness,” says Xiao. “Of the 900,000 workplace injuries identified in China each year, the majority are sustained by migrants. We did a survey in Hunan and Sichuan and found at least three to four returnees in each village with injuries. Also, there are a lot of people with mental problems, such as depression, but no one is helping them either.”

Zhang Qian, 42, from Shandong has moved up the coast from Shenzhen to Shanghai because of worries about his health. He now works as a security guard. “I left the factory five or six years ago. It paid well, but it was too demanding, both mentally and physically. Long hours on the line and repetitious hand movements left me constantly worried about my health and I spent quite a lot of time not feeling quite right,” he says.

Cheng Guorong has still not told his family exactly what horrors he suffered in Ningbo, but his relatives have pieced together some of the missing years. “Our family has always suffered misfortune,” his cousin says. “For many years we just thought he was dead.”

Like many rural children at the time, Cheng dropped out of school to help his family on the land, chopping firewood and herding water buffalo. “He was a kind and considerate boy,” his uncle says. “He was never aggressive at all, but very easy going. He had plenty of friends and liked to play football and ride his bike.”

When his production brigade in Boyang was dissolved, Cheng decided to go to Wenzhou to try his luck. He worked on construction sites and then moved to do similar work in Ningbo.

Initially, everything went according to plan. He married a woman from a nearby village in 1999 who bore him two sons. He returned home each Chinese New Year for the holidays, sent back money and even bought himself a mobile phone, a rare luxury in those days – his family still had to walk to the grocer’s to take his calls. But then things went wrong. In 2003, Cheng was robbed of his savings and, worried about his family’s reaction if he stopped sending back money, he dropped out of contact. “His phone was always engaged,” his cousin says.

It was common for migrants to disappear for long periods – their families usually only saw them at Chinese New Year. When Cheng began to skip the Chinese New Year celebrations as well, his family began to search for him, but several attempts to track him down all failed. Unable to dig himself out of his hole and earn money to send home to his family, Cheng decided to vanish, his dreams dashed. Today, he has told his relatives that he wants to return to work, but it is clear that his body and mind are wrecked.

“The government has not come up with any solutions to help these people,” says Liu. “If nothing happens, this could turn into a really serious issue in the coming five years or so. We desperately need minimum social welfare and free medical care, and the ability to transfer these benefits between city and countryside. Migrants should also be allowed to assimilate and have the right to dispose of their property – either renting it, selling it or simply transferring it. But so far, I have not seen any evidence of serious change.” DM

This article first appeared on

Main photo: Construction workers eat their lunch at a construction site in Beijing, August 31, 2010. The Chinese government’s efforts to curb price rises in the property market are beginning to work, and if the market defies cooling efforts officials should impose more measures, the nation’s top official paper said on Tuesday. REUTERS/Jason Lee.


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