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China's New Migrant Workers Want More

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

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.