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Factory girls – powering the industrialisation of China

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Rachel Salmon
WVoN co-editor

They are part of the largest migration in human history.

Young women are pouring into China’s cities from the countryside and powering the race towards industrialisation.

And in her book Factory Girls, Leslie T Chang finds out what drives them.

Twenty-five years ago, the idea of a young women ‘going out’, leaving the village and travelling thousands of miles to work in a large city, would have brought shame on the family. Now it is shameful not to go.

Boredom not starvation is emptying the villages of young people. “There was nothing to do at home so I went out,” they say.

They want to see the world. They want to learn new skills.

Going out is hard. Migrant workers may be the rural elite, but in the cities they are the lowest rank.

Many work over 50 hours a week for 50 to 80 dollars a month. “Get hurt, sick or pregnant and you’re on your own.”

But it is also an adventure. The breakneck pace of economic development creates opportunities.

The young women we meet in the book live in Dongguan, a large city in southern China, which opened its first factory in 1978 and now makes 30 per cent of the world’s disk drives. Over the past two decades economic growth has averaged 15 per cent a year.

No-one is quite sure how many people live there. The government estimates in the region of 1.7m residents and seven million migrants, 70 per cent of whom are women.

Many plants, like the city-factory of Yue Yuen, which makes trainers, employ mainly migrants, and it is possible to live for months in Dongguan without meeting a single resident.

A worker hired by Yue Yuen may never work anywhere else and many spend their days without venturing outside. The factory has its own shops, a hospital and even a water bottling plant.

The girls sleep ten to a dormitory. Only line leaders and above are allowed to live inside the factory with a child.

The workers have had to speed up to accommodate the accelerated pace of the global fashion cycle. In 2007 it took ten hours to make a pair of trainers. Four years earlier it had taken 25 days.

Living arrangements have been reshuffled, so the girls no longer share dorms with their friends but with colleagues on the production line. “Only the strongest survive.”

The girls have to work fast. Jobs are divided strictly along gender lines. Discrimination is ubiquitous.

Few factories employ women over 25 on the production lines, so they have to make it into a white collar job by then.

And as few are well-educated this means learning computers or English on top of a 13-hour working day.

Self-help books not Confucian proverbs make sense of the world. White collar classes practice not calligraphy but the art of sitting, dressing, drinking tea and public speaking.

The neat segments that divide up the Chinese lunar year have been replaced with the Christmas rush and the summer season.

The girls often talk of leaving, but when they return home there is nothing for them.

Parents do not understand the city, and the girls are selective in what they say about their new lives.

Wealth brings them status and power within the family. At the lunar New Year, the girls give money to elderly relatives –  in the past older people gave to the young.

The girls have more choice about when and who they marry. But finding the right partner is a struggle.

They have high expectations of romance, but prostitution takes place on an industrial scale. One hotel employed 10,000 women as prostitutes.

Chang, a journalist on the Wall Street Journal, spent six years in China, and at least two of them researching this book and getting to know the young women.

She uses her own family story to illustrate modern Chinese history: the way the turmoil of the past century has tended to make Chinese people live in the present, blocking out the horrors of the past; and the way her grandfather and later her father ‘went out’.

The result provides a deep insight into the contradictions and complexities of modern Chinese life.

Seen through the eyes of the teenage migrants, Factory Girls shows us how China is making the sharp transitioin from the village, where everything is done collectively, to the city, where ‘I can only rely on myself’.

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