Book review: Scattered Sand: The Story of China’s Rural Migrants by Hsaio-Hung Pai

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The mass transfer of people from impoverished rural hinterlands to the newly industrialised cities. Child labour. Innocent country girls forced into urban prostitution.

Scattered Sand: The Story of China’s Rural Migrants

by Hsaio-Hung Pai

Verso, 320pp, £16.99

Workers who take strike action against low pay and life-threatening conditions being victimised, physically abused and occasionally killed.

Those and other distressing phenomena were commonplaces of our industrial revolution, 200 years ago. As Scattered Sand, the latest remarkable book from Hsaio-Hung Pai makes clear, they are also customary in the supposedly socialist state of modern China, but on a staggering difference of scale. Late 18th-century Britain contained 16 million people. Early 21st-century China has a population of 1,300 million and counting. Its level of dispossession and consequent human misery is without precedent.

In his foreword to the book, sinologist Gregor Benton describes the present movement of Chinese peasants around and beyond China as the biggest mass migration in history and among the world’s largest social upheavals. Hsaio-Hung Pai has taken it upon herself to give this immense revolution a human face, rather like Henry Mayhew did in the 1840s in “London Labour and the London Poor”. She begins her journey at a labour market in the city of Shenyang in north-eastern China. Hundreds of people waited there throughout the night, in the hope of being hired to do a day’s work for pennies the following morning. She meets Peng, a 21-year-old refugee from his family’s tiny sweet-corn farm (tiny in this case does mean tiny: Peng and his father had two-thirds of an acre, which is smaller than some Edinburgh gardens ).

Peng has been haunting the labour market for three years. He cannot return to the family croft because he needs to earn the medical fees to pay for treatment of an uncle’s heart disorder. He is just one more vulnerable worker in Shenyang’s ruthless employer’s market.

All of this, as Hsaio-Hung Pai describes it, is the result of a one-party Communist state adopting the most laissez-faire of capitalist strategies. It is the worst of both worlds. When China attempted a form of socialism, between the 1950s and the 1980s, the country was relatively poor but there was free health care for all, including Peng’s peasant family.

When profit became the clarion, the liberalisation of the market was not accompanied by liberalisation of the state. Some Chinese employers became very rich indeed. Health care was privatised. Hundreds of millions became poorer and sicker than ever, with no possibility of improving their lot through the ballot box.

So they took the only option open to them. They got on their bikes and looked for work. When they were lucky enough to find it, that work was demeaning, exploitative and poorly paid – as it was bound to be in an unregulated labour exchange with hundreds of millions of aspiring employees. The free-market trickle-down fantasy of wealth is as unlikely to be realised in modern China as it was in 19th-century Europe.

Attempts to assert civil liberties and basic workers’ rights have been crushed, often by the armed members of that immense force which still styles itself the People’s Army. In such circumstances China’s extraordinary economic growth was all but inevitable – as inevitable as were the successful industrial revolutions of Britain and the US when their entrepreneurs also were given a free hand and the support when requested of the state’s military resources.

If China’s rulers have no desire to learn from the history of the West, China’s people have no concept of that history. They are treading a well-worn path in ignorance of those who went before. “Very few of us would even understand what a trade union is,” 38-year-old Xuan tells Hsaio-Hung Pai in the slums of southern Beijing, “let alone want to form one! And anyway, it’s not allowed. I don’t know what socialism is. I can’t read Marx. But I know what socialism is not. It’s not what we have here in this country.”

Scattered Sand is a depressing but essential introduction to the Chinese Century. The cost of superpower status has been the deliberate creation of one of the most inegalitarian societies on earth. It may always have been thus and it may ever be thus. But the voices of the Pengs and the Xuans of the planet must be heard. The people who are valued as little as grains of sand will always need their Hsaio-Hung Pai.