Former Wall Street Journal correspondent Chang penetrates the teeming world of young female migrant workers and finds, rather surprisingly, that it holds a lot more promise than being stuck on the farm.
“There was nothing to do at home” was the recurring explanation the author received from workers who had moved to China’s cities looking for work. Despite low wages, long hours, no health benefits and exploitive bosses, these girls, as young as 16 (they often lied about their ages), braved the danger of the unknown and sought new lives, sometimes with an older relative’s help, sometimes by simply knocking on a factory door. Some 115 million migrant workers have been key to China’s recent economic growth, providing the biggest source of wealth accumulation in rural China; the government no longer hounds these workers, but encourages them. Chang penetrates their world through the stories of two particular workers in the factory town of Dongguan. Min, born in a farming village in Hubei, went to Dongguan with her older sister and swiftly rose from a lowly assembly-line job to white-collar office work because of her nice handwriting. She sent money home and hoped to return there to find a husband. Chunming arrived in Dongguan from Hunan Province when she was 17; she narrowly escaped being pressed into a brothel and by sheer will and determination to better herself gained steady promotions into management and high-paying sales jobs, until in her early 30s she predicted that within three years she would achieve her goals of “financial independence and freedom.” Enduring discrimination, loss of friends and dehumanizing dating rituals, these migrants still relished their independence and heightened status at home. Chang clutters their fascinating narratives with clumsy attempts to incorporate the migrant stories of her own family members, who fled the communist revolution.
Somewhat bland and meandering, but in-depth reporting contributes significantly to our knowledge about China’s development.