By Yang Guang
Published: 2008-05-29

Nation, page 9, issue no. 367, May 12
Original article:

"Actually, things are good. You could call it an ideal life," Li Fuchao said, smiling at his girlfriend sitting beside him. The girl, her hair worn in a plait, responded with a quiet smile.

"Really. We were born in 1989. We are already 19," Li repeated their age a third time.

An immigrant worker in Dongguan, Guangdong province, China's manufacturing powerhouse, Li nonetheless carried a childish look on his face.

Never before had he and his friends come into sharper focus than now.

Not long ago, Guangdong-based newspaper Southern Metropolis Daily exposed suspicious child labor cases among some 80 workers from Liangzhou, Sichuan province, most of whom were brought to Dongguan by labor captains.

Massive media coverage of the issue led these young laborers, who long been hidden in din of the bustling metropolises, to the public spotlight. Their lives, Li claimed, had since been thrown into confusion.

Born in the late 1980s and early 1990s, they were 16 to 20 years old. Unlike their fathers, the first immigrants to work in urban areas, their minds were filled with modern hopes and plans. While the former tended to return home after years of work, the latter thirsted more for urban luxury, and to ultimately assimilate into their new environment.

But despite their longing to blend in with the city, they remained at its social, economic, and physical edge. And though they didn't plan on returning home, they still desperately missed their families.

Still, to these adolescents, their future was a blank canvas. In this thriving city of China, they were called "the new Dongguan people".

Sweet Soup and Shipai Park

Dongguan workers roving the streets. Photo by Fang Guangming

Shipai was a town in northeastern Dongguan. Twenty kilometers away from downtown, it had a permanent population of only 40,000; immigrant workers totaled 200,000. For the younger ones, there were two kinds of entertainment after work—walking in Shipai Park, and treating themselves to local desserts in a neighborhood shop. To them, time in the park was free entertainment, a place to enjoy the scenery and time to chat; on the other the snack shop meant a bowl of sweet soup at two yaun and a whole night of free TV.

Li came to the town two years ago, and was now working at an electronic accessories factory. As it was May Day today, he was allowed to get off work two hours earlier than usual. After work, Li changed out of his work uniform and into a clean T-shirt and jeans. He then went to the park and waited by the steps for his girlfriend, who was still working.

Without any fixed day-off, the girl made 900 yuan a month in a nearby toy factory. Both of them were form Anyuan county of Jiangxi province. "Usually we don't have so much time together. Today we can take our time and enjoy some sweet soup," Li said.

Four years ago, Li left home with two other boys from a neighboring village, bringing with him 90 yuan and a pack of rice. His brother, 13 years his elder, had been bitten in the leg by a boar when he went chopping wood in the mountains, and was disabled thereafter. At 22 he committed suicide by drinking pesticides.

At that time, our father cried his eyes out, he said it was because he didn't want to be a burden to us, Li recalled. "Mother fell sick. She never cried. We were very poor then. We managed a simple, three-day funeral with borrowed money," he said.

The first destination of Li and his friends was the Gaizhou city in Jiangxi. Not knowing what they could do, the three idled about the streets for about half a month.

When hungry, they asked for free meals in small restaurants. When night fell, they slept on the chairs in bus stations. "Maybe because we were young, people in the restaurants often had leftovers for us," he said.

Half a month later, a restaurant asked Li to deliver food and offered him 300 yuan a month. Everybody was happy, he said, as they could sleep at the restaurant, though in the day he had to keep running food deliveries.

At about seven, a girl in a blue dress walked over to Li from the other side of the street. "This is my girlfriend, Liang. We met in this park late last year," Li introduced her to this reporter as she walked nearer.

The girl was shy. Seeing the reporter standing by Li, she stopped in her tracks about ten meters away. Li ran to her, grabbed her handbag, and said something to her. Three minutes later, they came to me laughing. Li liked putting his hands in his pant pockets when walking.

"Where are we going?" the girl asked. As Li hesitated, she suggested they have porridge and sweet soup.

To young couples like Li and Liang, to spend more than 30 yuan on a meal was out of the question. Because of them, sweet soup, a local dessert, was quite popular in the town.

Like Li, Liang came two year ago from the countryside. Because her family was poor, she dropped out before finishing primary school. She had an elder brother who worked in the nearby town, Chang'an. They took turns sending money back home, Liang said. At home, besides their parents was their five-year old little sister.

Though not so wide, the main street in Shipai was alive at nightfall. Snack shops, food stands, rented houses extended out on the two sides of the street. Like any other city in Guangdong at night, street food vendors put dinner tables on the sidewalks here. With crowds of guests having their meals and talking freely, the street boiled with life.

Here, the regulars, the workers, are fixtures.

"You may have also felt it. We can see whether you are new here by a single glance—even whether you are here to work or just for a business trip. Strangers are eye-catching," Li added.

"We are Content"
We whiled away half a night in the snack shop, during which conversation bounced between their hometowns and the outside world. It seemed that homesickness and an unwillingness to return were both perpetually salient in their minds.

"Sometimes I miss home a lot. I want to go back and live with my family. There I needn't go to work on time every day, or tolerate the chief's unkindness. But how can I return to the past after all these efforts to leave the countryside and find a job here?" Liang said.

"Are you here to find child labor? We are not children. We are all adults," four young people in the shop approached this reporter.

Also workers from other provinces, they all knew Li and Liang. One of them was a girl from Henan. Pointing at the other three boys, she said that they were all child labor but she herself wasn't.

Seeing the three boys embarrassed and annoyed, Liang laughed. "Aqin, let them buy you another bowl of lotus sugar water and redeem their pride."

After a moment of hesitation, the three bought Aqin another bowl. One of the boys turned to her with an earnest look, "Don't talk nonsense. If people take your words seriously, we'll be taken away by the cops. See who will pay your bill then."

Bowl in hand, Aqin answered regretfully, "I was just joking. They would have been arrested if they were. They're almost 20. I'm the youngest here, but already 19 by Chinese count." Chinese assume a newly-born baby is already one year old.

They returned to the park after the meal. Sitting down on a stone stool, Li took out a pack of cigarettes and shared it with the other boys. To avoid the smoke, Liang and Aqin chose to sit on the opposite stools.

Holding a cigarette between his fingers, Adong from Sichuan said he had studied at primary school for less than two years. "Then I helped my family sell sugarcane in nearby towns. Whenever there was a kid in the town coming to buy sugarcane, envy arose in my heart. I thought to myself that when I needn't sell sugarcane, I would move to the town."

"Now looking back, I don't envy them at all. I earn my own money now, and am living near a big city. I'm far better off than them," he said, referring to downtown Dongguan 20 kilometers away.

"I think the recent talk of the bitterness felt by those child workers are exaggerations. Every day we work for over 12 hours. The factories don't take care of room and board, we have to cover that ourselves. Most of the people living in the nearby rented houses are our co-workers. But all of this is normal. Why should so many people intervene? " One boy from Changde, Hunan asked.

Li and his friends lived in a nearby house. The daily rent was originally ten yuan, but the owner offered him a 20 percent discount as he had lived there for quite some time, Li said. When they wanted to watch TV, they would go to the snack shop downstairs. When bored, they'd hang out with friends in Shipai Park.

Life repeated itself in the factory, in the park, in the snack shop, and the rented rooms every day.

"Don't you envy these kids at schools?" this reporter asked.

"I once did, but not now. I have a job now, and make my own money. I'm surely living a better life than them, because they'll leave school to make money sooner or later," Adong said.

The boy from Changde added, "to be honest, I think life is good here. Anyway I'm very content with it. One has to be content to remain happy. Hardship is inevitable to one who works in an alien land. I really don't understand why they should expel these kids (referring to child labor). They work as well as the others."

"Life is Interesting Only When it Keeps Changing"
However, to the Dongguan youth, the future was something too abstract to grasp. As one post on the internet said, though in a desperate pursuit of modern life, this marginalized group is lagging further behind the times and didn't even realize it.

Having spent two years in Shipai, Li said he planned to move to Chang'an with his girlfriend, as some friends working there told him there were more companies and they offered better pay.

When being asked about his dream, Adong gave a naughty smile and replied, "My dream is to meet Xiaoyanzi," referring to the heroin of a popular TV series.

In Li's memory, the only two people who had mentioned "future" were his father and brother.

"Dad told me to build a new home. [He said] it would be best if we could move to the town and never return to the mountains. I can't remember what my brother said. Maybe it was about making money. Make money and go to school," he said.

"What's your plan? Are you satying here? Or..." Adong asked Aqin.

The girl answered that she had never thought about it, and quoted an old Chinese saying that there would always be a way forward for the cart that encounters a mountain.

People came and left the town of Shipai. All of Dongguan shared this trait.  "We will leave no matter how good the working environment here is. Life is interesting only when it keeps changing," Aqin said.

The "child labor" exposure by media had roused heated public debate and concern from the central government, which in response dispatched an investigation team to look into the case.

As Zhang, a landlord in Shipai, said, the existence of child labor had always been more than just an accident. These children drifted in and out year round, and some covered up their ages by fake ID cards provided by their bosses.

According to a notice issued on May 5 by the emergency management office of the Guangdong provincial government, apart from the three companies in Dongguan which had employed six child workers, no instance of introducing or employing child labor was discovered in other regions of the province. It also claimed that the previously suspected kidnap and rape of child workers was not discovered, nor were any child labor chains, described by Southern Metropolis Daily as a system where labor chiefs recommend and bring child labor from elsewhere.

Looking at the people strolling in the park, Li said they were all workers just like him, who volunteered to leave home and work here. They came because it was better here than at home, otherwise they'd all have left, he stressed.

The other boys asked again, "Why do you people want to expel them? They come here to work and earn money, just like us. Nobody forces them to do so. Why can't they stay?"

(All names are pseudonyms)