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Labor in China

China's New Migrant Workers Want More

Twenty-one-year-old He XiaoJie (right) lives in a five-person dorm room within his factory

Photograph by Christina Larson

Twenty-one-year-old He XiaoJie (right) lives in a five-person dorm room within his factory

The red neon sign over the front door of a new entertainment complex in Beijing’s suburban Daxing district—a local garment manufacturing hub—reads simply “The Skating Rink.” Inside, Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” crackles over loudspeakers, and a strobe light casts red and green pixels of light across a hardwood floor. The young migrant workers who toil in the garment factories nearby typically work on weekends, and have only two or three days off a month. So a crowd begins to form only in the evenings, after overtime shifts end around 9 or 10 p.m.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, the rink has just a handful of early skaters. Among them is a family of five. (Many migrant families manage to disregard China’s one-child policy.) Pudgy 3-year-old Zhefang, wearing a yellow sundress and short pigtails, tugs playfully on the laces of her 5-year-old brother’s skates. Her other brother, who is 9, races full speed around the rink. Juping and Xinfang, the parents, are both 29 and moved here from Jiangxi province seven years ago. Today is one of the precious few days all year that they are together as a family. Because the parents lack a Beijing hukou—or residence permit—they cannot enroll their children in local schools. The two boys now live with their grandparents back in Jiangxi. Xinfang says she “really wants our girl to stay with us” once Zhefang reaches school age, but knows it’s not likely. She scoops up the little girl in her arms and lovingly pats down stray hairs that have shaken loose of her pigtails.

China’s great modern migration from countryside to city began roughly 30 years ago. Starting in the 1980s, new factories in southeastern China began to churn out goods for export and lured workers who could make more on the assembly line than on the farm. In the 1980s and ’90s, most of those who left home were young single people, like the women described in Leslie Chang’s book, Factory Girls. A majority of migrants expected to work for a few years, save money, and eventually return to their hometowns. However, in recent years this pattern has notably shifted. Government planning documents refer to migrants born after 1980 as “new generation migrant workers,” and recent reports from China’s National Bureau of Statistics show how they differ from their predecessors. Just as Juping and Xinfang moved to Beijing as a married couple with a young child in tow, several studies show that a majority of migrant workers now move with at least one other family member.

Beijing’s Daxing district lies outside the Sixth Ring Road, a 90-minute drive from the city center. The local government has made a push to attract garment factories ranging in size from those with a few hundred employees to those with less than a dozen. The workers who come here are mostly in their late teens and twenties. Like previous generations, they have come to start a new life with little savings and a lot of gumption. But they are more tech-savvy, fashion-conscious, and educated than their parents. Most significant, they expect to integrate permanently into city life—putting more urgent pressure on the government to change China’s current system of allocating social services (including schooling and health care) only to those with difficult-to-obtain city residence permits.

In his recent book, China’s Urban Billion, analyst Tom Miller of GK Dragonomics writes, “Surveys show that the majority of the new generation of migrant workers [have] no intention of returning to the penury of rural life.” In explaining the attitudinal shift, he notes: “They are significantly better educated than their parents, and usually adapt far more quickly to urban ways. They hope to become fully fledged urban citizens and enjoy a modern consumer lifestyle.”

Twenty-one-year-old He XiaoJie stands on a street corner carefully checking his tousled hair using his smartphone camera as a mirror. High in the front and shorter on the sides, his style looks a bit like young John Travolta. He’s wearing shiny black pants, pointy black shoes, and a black shirt with a few buttons unfastened to reveal necklace bling. He came here last year from Jiangxi province, and now lives in a five-person dorm room within his factory and makes about 3,000 yuan ($485) per month. He has a girlfriend, but “she is still working overtime tonight.”

While he waits, he starts playing online games on his smartphone. Internet access is expanding rapidly in China, largely driven by folks like He who have never owned a laptop or PC but now wield Internet-capable mobile devices. “If it’s not a smartphone, who will use it?” he asks. It’s easy to keep in touch with friends and trends. In contrast to past migrant workers, content to trudge to work in slippers and pajamas, He and his friends carefully cultivate their urbane looks. The dusty streets of Daxing now have several hair parlors. According to one hairdresser, cuts are 10 yuan ($1.60) for men and women, and wavy perms, asymmetric cuts, and red dye are especially popular.

Xu Hui, a 25-year-old from Shandong province, works in a small garment workshop

“Today’s young workers want more than we did,” says Lijia Zhang, a 49-year-old former factory worker turned author, whose memoir, Socialism Is Great!, recounts an earlier era on the assembly line. “They want to be happy, not just to get by. They grew up more materially comfortable and today are more demanding.”

After sunset, it quickly grows dark on the alleys winding past the smaller factories. There are no streetlamps here. But the lights are still on inside a few workshops at 9 p.m. Within, the steady hum of machinery competes with music on a worker’s radio; the chorus of one pop anthem repeats: “I am not like I was before.”

Larson is a Bloomberg Businessweek contributor.

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