Scattered Sand has won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing
Guest judge Nina Power said the title presented a “vivid, intimate and highly-engaging picture of work in contemporary China”. She added: “Pai's book evidences compassion and passion in equal measure for the workers she talks to, and presents a highly convincing, if often depressing, portrait of rural to urban migration and economic exploitation.”
SCATTERED SAND The Story of China's Rural Migrants
Preface by Gregor Benton
First-hand report on the largest migration in human history
Each year, 200 million workers from China’s vast rural interior travel between cities and provinces in search of employment: the largest human migration in history. This indispensable army of labour accounts for half of China’s GDP, but is an unorganized workforce—‘scattered sand’, in Chinese parlance—and the most marginalized and impoverished group of workers in the country. For two years, Hsiao-Hung Pai travelled across China, visiting migrant workers in labour markets and work sites in the northeast and central China, in the coal mines and brick kilns of the Yellow River region, and at the factories of the Pearl River Delta. Scattered Sand is the result of her travels: a finely wrought portrait of those left behind by China’s dramatic social and economic advances.
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The Chinese edition of Scattered Sand has been published by 行人出版社 in June 2014, in Taipei.
“Hsiao-Hung Pai brings her knowledge of China’s history to this detailed examination of the plight of the millions of peasants searching for work in China’s booming cities and, failing that, in other countries…A grim but keen view of the dark underside of China’s prosperity.” – Kirkus Reviews
“Hsiao-Hung Pai’s intrepid journalism is one of the most revealing guides to contemporary China.” – Pankaj Mishra, author of From the Ruins of Empire
“Scattered Sand captures the sadness, resilience and anger of China’s millions of internal and international migrants. This illuminating book effortlessly interweaves individual voices, rarely heard by English-speaking audiences, with the history, politics and economics that shape migrants’ stories and their choices.” – Bridget Anderson, author of Doing the Dirty Work: The Global Politics of Domestic Labor
The Observer
by Sukhdev Sandhu
The lives of China's rural migrants come into sharp focus in this insightful account
Back in 1975, John Berger and the Swiss photographer Jean Mohr produced an unusual book entitled A Seventh Man about the millions of rural migrants moving to western Europe to perform menial industrial labour. It fused poetic text, political analysis and striking images – one depicted a solitary figure on a horse and cart, having just left behind his ancestral land, slowly wending through sun-blazed dusty lanes in pursuit of a new life – in order to ask why those migrant workers are "treated like replaceable parts of a machine? What compels them to leave their villages and accept this humiliation?"
The images in Taiwan-born, British-based journalist Hsiao-Hung Pai's Scattered Sand are descriptive rather than photographic, but in every other way her book is a worthy successor to A Seventh Man. It focuses on contemporary China, where the scale of rural migration – over 130 million men and women have left their home provinces in search of work – makes the demographic debates about modern-day Europe seem parochial and hysterical. It pays tribute to a class of people that, although exalted under Mao as a revolutionary vanguard, has constantly to face the threat of pauperisation. It amplifies sounds – plaintive chants, desperate petitions, exhausted prayers, sceptical curses – that are often drowned out by the stentorian boosterism of the state loudspeaker.
Scattered Sand (its name comes from a dismissive term given to unorganised rural migrants) can be seen as an anthology of ghost stories. Its subjects, compelled to move by stagnant local economies and corrupt officials flogging off land to corporations, are invisible to many Chinese urban dwellers who have no interest in learning about the crowded shacks or cheap hostels into which they squeeze. In Fujian province Pai learns of men who toil in unsafe mines for the equivalent of 18 pence a day, risking lung diseases for which they can't be compensated because they lack work contracts.
And yet, what makes this book so important is that Pai rejects the all too common and deeply sinophobic assumption that China can only be described in quantum terms. It's commonly portrayed as too big, its recent transformations too vast to grasp, its population a muted and faceless army of drone labour. Pai, by contrast, treks to building sites few outsiders visit, wanders down side alleys to talk to the poor and the crooked, keeps in touch with her confidantes by letter and by phone over a number of years.
From these intimacies she shows her subjects not as ghosts, but as decent, quietly heroic men and women who sacrifice blood, sweat and tears to support their families. Literally so: in the "plasma economy" of Henan, a province full of underground blood clinics, she meets a peasant who sells his blood up to three times a day, in part to pay off a fine for having more than one child.
Injustices and indignities scream out of every page. Starting out in Moscow where around 50,000 migrants eke out livings in the face of skinhead violence, Pai moves across China – the brick kilns of the Yellow river region where child labourers are common, Sichuan where years after the 2008 earthquake millions live in temporary housing, the troubled region of Xinjiang in which anti-Muslim sentiment is rife – to present stories that run counter to the triumphalism of politicians, starchitects and speculators.
The book shines an uncomfortable spotlight on Britain too. After all, it's our desire for cheap toys and clothes to which many Chinese factories cater. It's our fondness for the freedom and mobility promised by laptop computers that fuels the profits of companies such as Foxconn at whose factories nets have been installed to stop workers jumping to their deaths. Are our labour laws perfect? A heartbreaking chapter in which Pai meets relatives of one of the cockle pickers drowned at Morecambe Bay in 2004 suggests not. Scattered Sand does well to draw attention to the ways in which millions of Chinese people, in the face of physical threats and a censorious press, have gone on strikes and marches to protest against their conditions. Classic labour texts – A Seventh Man, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men – often privilege exploitation over resistance. Pai, diligent to the end, and writing out of love rather than hatred for China, holds on to the hope that resistance is fertile.
Literary Review
by Jonathan Mirsky
Next time you buy something in Primark spare a thought for the Chinese human being who made that dirt-cheap item. I say dirt-cheap advisedly because the employer almost certainly treated the maker like dirt. Not long ago a friend said she feared that China was” going to take over the world.” She mentioned China’s enormous Gross National Product. But getting on for half that enormous sum is generated by rural people who left their ever-poorer villages to hunt for work, badly paid and unremitting, in the parts of cities tourists never see. Then there are the tens of thousands of once-rural Chinese living in the UK illegally, who do jobs scorned by Poles and Ukrainians.
All this is laid bare by the incomparable and eloquent Hsiao-hung Pai, a Taiwanese woman whose excellent previous book, “Chinese Whispers”, focused first on the Chinese cockle-pickers doomed to drown in Morecambe Bay in 2004 by heartless Chinese and British “gang masters”. She then explored more widely the plight of Chinese immigrants here.
Now Ms Pai - will she ever get another Chinese visa? - spent two years in China examining the lives and fortunes of the 200 million rural people who left their homes, like “scattered sand,” to work elsewhere, either in China or abroad. There are earlier books on this subject, notably Leslie T.Chang’s “Factory Girls,” and Alexandra Harney’s “The China Price,” but they do not match Ms.Pai’s scope, analysis, information and occasional rage.
What she accomplishes is that difficult thing, deftly combining personal testimony with statistics. One never wonders, after some particularly ghastly first-person observation, whether this is too awful to be generally true.
Take, for example, the grim fact that many migrants are reduced to repeatedly selling their blood, at dire risk of contracting AIDs from unsterilized needles. Ms Pai tells us about Qi Cheng, who beginning at the age of sixteen “sold his blood a thousand times - literally. Sometimes he sold 700 to 800 centilitres three times a day,”[99] all over Henan, his native province. He made enough money to buy three houses, but after fifteen years he and his wife died of AIDs, leaving four children. Ms Pai interviewed Dr Gao Yaojie, a gynecologist and AIDs specialist, who met Qi in the course of visiting one hundred villages, and warned the public about the misery of thousands of AIDs sufferers and belabored the government’s corruption and incompetence. Like many Chinese whistle blowers she was persecuted, in her case for of “damaging Henan’s reputation,” [102] and driven abroad.
A typically masterful coordination of personal and national occurs when Ms Pai meets some survivors of the terrible Sichuan earthquake of 2008; no one had received any of the promised government compensation. An elderly white-haired man suddenly speaks. “We peasants brought the Party to power. But once they came to power we became burdened and exploited again.... And do you know what we peasants had as our reward in the decades that followed the Revolution?” The crowd was rapt. “ Poverty! That’s the principle upheld by our great leaders.”[57]
One of Ms Pai’s unique strengths, nearly impossible for even the most experienced foreign correspondent, is making friends with the people she meets, sharing meals and chats, and feeling despair at some of their testimonies. In Beijing she meets Xuan, from a village with only a few hundred inhabitants. He says to her, “ Do you know what democracy means in China? It means good connections. ...If you have good connections, you can buy your status.” [221] Xuan migrated to Beijing where he sweated seven days a week for a security company. Wages were pitiful, with no sick pay or holiday paid leave. Always paid a month behind, it was impossible for him to leave for something better. Ms.Pai takes Xuan to Tiananmen Square where after six years in the capital he had never been. (She makes a common error; Mao did not proclaim, “The Chinese people have stood up” in Tiananmen Square.) Gazing at the tanks and floats on display, Xuan is aghast. “How much those in power care about face...Their face is much more important and expensive than our bare bottoms.”[226]
Ms. Pai’s book is just right for anyone even slightly interested in China and worried about this becoming the Chinese century; and it may jolt academic specialists clinging to the conviction that the Chinese “economic miracle” is widespread. The “reality,” Hsiao-hung Pai states, “ is that China has been struck hard by the global recession and is as bitterly divided as the rest of the world...[11] ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ reveals itself to be little more than a variant of the brutal capitalist order that the Communists once denounced...”[13]...
Wall Street Journal
Frank Dikötter
“We hear a lot about cheap products made in China, but how about the 200 million migrants who leave the impoverished countryside every year in search of work? Pai Hsiao-hung spent two years examining the lives of laborers in coalmines, brick kilns and factories across the country. They are dirt poor and treated like untouchables, barely able to survive on pitiful wages. Pai’s book is exceptional not only in the depth of her research, but also in giving a voice to the people she befriends. Essential to understand the human reality behind China’s so-called economic miracle.”
Historian Frank Dikötter is the Chair Professor of Humanities at the University of Hong Kong. His book, “Mao’s Great Famine,” won the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2011.
New Statesman
by Isabel Hilton
Any day now, the Chinese political system will go into spasm and produce a new leadership. The backstory of the choices will remain largely unknown, despite astonishing recent glimpses of the infighting in what increasingly resembles the world’s biggest mafia organisation.
If the past is any guide, at the climax of the Chinese Communist Party congress, scheduled for this autumn, nine middle-aged men with implausibly black hair and tightly set expressions will march on to the big stage in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People to rapturous applause. These illuminati will be the new incumbents of China’s most powerful entity, the standing committee of the politburo.
At the end of their expected two terms of office, these men and their families will be fabulously rich. They will be alert throughout to the demands of supporters and wary of attacks by rivals. They will place their allies in key posts to guard against future reversals of fortune. Much lower down their list of concerns will be what the 1.3 billion people they rule might be thinking as they watch this change of shift at the top.
A tidal wave of China-related books inundates the bookshops each year but few of them interrogate what Chinese people outside the privileged urban elites really feel about the past five decades of economic upheaval, social rupture and ideological confusion or about the ruling party and the system it upholds. This is in part because, with more than a billion subjects, even the most conscientious effort can be criticised as too small to be useful.
Equally important is the reluctance of the Chinese authorities to allow foreigners to dig around in this sensitive territory. Gerard Lemos, whose book The End of the Chinese Dream is based on an extended exercise in opinion-gathering, and Hsiao-Hung Pai, whose book Scattered Sand is the product of thorough reporting among China’s most marginalised citizens, both show what can be discovered despite official obstruction.
It is a cliché of many western accounts of China that the double-digit economic growth of the past 30 years must equate to the greatest happiness of the greatest number: 300 million people have been lifted out of poverty; China is now the world’s second-largest economy; the majority of Chinese are living in cities for the first time in history. How could this not be happiness?
The party leadership knows better. It is one of the hazards of authoritarianism that leaders may be unaware of the depth of the people’s anger until it is too late. Lower-level bureaucrats hide unpleasant truths from their boss and suppress truth-telling by others. The regime relies on old-fashioned intelligence methods – the secret police, petitions from unhappy citizens and internal reports from the party’s news agency, Xinhua, to identify dissent. With the explosion of social media, it also harvests the public mood electronically.
Until recently, the kind of qualitative research practised by Lemos was rare. In 2006, he took up a visiting professorship in Chongqing, the sprawling megalopolis in western China ruled at the time by the now disgraced Bo Xilai. His brief was to teach Chinese colleagues research techniques that might help to improve policymaking and implementation. It wasn’t straight­forward. Foreigners are not allowed to conduct surveys in China. Lemos was, however, allowed to erect a “wish tree” in various locations, an idea adapted from Chinese religious practice. He created 3,000 “leaves”, cards on which participants found four questions: who are you, what event changed your life, what is your biggest worry and what do you wish for? The responses were brief and the samples unscientific but, woven into Lemos’s narrative, they illuminate the fear of the future that lies beneath the surface of a rising China.
Lemos’s snapshots reveal people traumatised by rapid change and the loss of community and family ties, deeply anxious about the insecurities of old age and resentful of flourishing corruption and ineffective justice. Despite higher living standards, Lemos’s respondents are beset with financial woes: many are worse off than before, others worried about falling ill and facing medical bills; the young worry about failing the exams on which their job prospects and the hopes of their families depend; children worry about the devastating environmental pollution that has been the price of industrialisation. Small wonder local officials tried to bury the results.
The discontent of the middle classes, generally considered the beneficiaries of China’s economic growth, is perhaps more surprising than the unhappiness of migrant workers revealed in Pai’s account. Pai is best known in Britain for her work on the Morecambe Bay disaster in 2004 in which 23 Chinese migrant workers drowned. She followed their story back to China, then spent two years studying migration there.
The migrant workers are the most recent manifestation of a policy that has existed in various forms since the People’s Republic was founded in 1949: the exploitation of its rural population to fund development. Pai describes how rural men and women, desperate to escape poverty, have been the motor of China’s economic boom. The men build the cities and labour in lethal coal mines; the women work brutal hours in factories turning out everything from shoes to computers for export.
Migrant workers do the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs. In return, they are cheated of their wages, left with industrial diseases and denied basic rights. They exist as an underclass in China and many have been driven to suicide. They don’t show up in China’s unemployment statistics or in average income statistics. (The city of Guangzhou recently announced that it had reached a per capita average income of $10,000 per year, a figure that simply ignored 3.5 million migrant workers.)
They remain non-people. City dwellers whose homes and offices they have built treat them with contempt. They have no right of access to city health services and their children cannot attend city schools. Through their eyes, Pai exposes the brutal realities of the political system that the nine new politburo members will lead. How long it survives will depend on whether they are willing to change it.
Isabel Hilton is editor of
The Independent
by Rachel Halliburton
The painstaking journalism here offers remarkable insights into the plight of China's new citizens
"Rulers in China know about the power of those from the countryside," declares an orator close to the start of a book that takes the reader on an odyssey into a very 21st-century heart of darkness. In this meticulously researched portrait of rural migrants, the devastation is in the detail as the Taiwanese journalist Hsiao-Hung Pai tirelessly travels from bleakly beautiful desert landscapes to industrial hellholes to hear the voices of China's great anonymous workforce.
"China's history is all about how the peasantry has been burdened and oppressed," continues the orator, "and how each time they rose up to overthrow those in power. But then those new rulers would oppress the peasant masses again, until our anger could not be contained any longer and boiled over, once more, into a revolution."
The speaker is no powerful young firebrand but a frail white-haired old man called Xue, whom Pai has met with his son close to the labour market in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan. Xue has survived the murderously broken promises of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, only to experience disenfranchisement in old age both through his son's unemployment and the constantly looming threat of land seizure.
Though it's almost a game among economists to predict the year when China will leapfrog the US to become the world's largest economy, this year's slowing of growth has sharpened the focus on a wealth gap that has become a chasm. As Beijing prepares for its once-in-a-decade transfer of power this autumn, the Communist elite should be deeply concerned about how the multi-pronged exploitation of rural migrants could spark fresh social unrest.
It's tempting to think of Dickens's Hard Times as Pai goes from belching brick kilns to mining communities, from production-line workers' living quarters to derelict rural backwaters. But as Gerard Lemos, author of The End of the Chinese Dream, has commented, to compare China's industrial revolution with 19th-century Britain is banal – it's the uniqueness of what's happening here that should be the starting point for analysis.
Through painstaking journalism, Pai breaks down the largest human migration in history – with an estimated 200 million peasants involved –into a multiplicity of personal stories. Each is put into context with different episodes in Chinese politics. It's not just the wide range of people she accesses, but the depth of the conversations that marks this out from other works – and she puts herself in danger on more than one occasion.
For instance, when she visits a brick kiln in the Shandong province, she is accompanied by "Mr Qi", a maintenance worker who suddenly reveals he's going to demand the factory pays him six months' worth of owed wages. "Would the boss yield to our collective pressure and release the money?" she asks herself. "Or would he turn nasty and hire thugs to get rid of us – as in the stories I had heard so many times before?" In the event they are not beaten up, but nor does Qi get his money.
China's rural workers are skewered on so many levels, it's depressingly easy to understand those who urge their children to get into other countries by posing as orphans. Yet as Pai has already proved – with her first book, about Chinese labour in Britain, Chinese Whispers – life is unlikely to be easier elsewhere. Neither communism nor Deng-pioneered capitalism has helped them, and with Western companies complicit in squeezing the minimally-paid minions, the future – despite a few successful protests – looks forlorn. By far the worst story is of the peasants who contracted Aids through selling blood for money, but sadly this is just one example of their ruthless exploitation by a vampiric world.
Daily Beast review by Ross Perlin, author of Intern Nation:
Ghosts in the machine: the story of China's rural migrants and their uncertain future
Behind the economic miracle of China stands millions of rural migrants who keep the country going. Ross Perlin on a new book that tells their stories—and wonders what happens if China stops growing.
Every year, the awkwardly named Leading Group Office of Poverty Alleviation and Development, an arm of the powerful State Council, announces the list of China’s 592 “Poverty Counties.” All of them are rural, and most are in the country’s underdeveloped west: mountainous, off the grid, populated by non-Han ethnic minorities. The typical resident is a small-time farmer tilling a few acres of exhausted soil, one of 128 million rural Chinese living on less than a dollar a day.
To visit such places, as few travelers ever do, is to peel back layer after layer of development, returning to an older China of Mao suits, subsistence agriculture, and single-lineage villages. You begin in the provincial capital, always the wealthiest and most developed city. Next stop, after a long journey by bus, is the capital of the prefecture (a level of government with no U.S. equivalent): here global brands, white-collar workers, and high-tech gadgets are already much less in evidence. Then the xiancheng, or “county seat,” significantly smaller but with its markets, schools, and hospitals still powerful magnets for the surrounding countryside. Only then do you come to the villages. Basic services and facilities are now hard to come by; roads may be unpaved or nonexistent; children and old folks predominate. A palpable desolation—and the feeling of what the Chinese call luohou, or backwardness—hangs in the air.
China’s migrant workers, desperate to escape these conditions, are traveling in precisely the opposite direction. Over the past three decades, some 200 million of them have left home to find work, two thirds going beyond their home provinces and millions overseas undertaking what is justifiably called the largest migration in human history. As Taiwanese journalist Hsiao-Hung Pai persuasively demonstrates in Scattered Sand, many members of this “new mobile proletariat,” despite 80-hour work weeks and backbreaking labor, are becoming virtual untouchables, caught between a blighted countryside and hostile, unattainable cities. Despite powering the country's economic growth, they receive a pittance of the proceeds. The number of “mass incidents,” many the work of migrants, grows by the year. The “floating population” (liudong renkou in Chinese) is the specter haunting China.
Previous accounts, such as Leslie Chang’s Factory Girls (2008) and Michelle Loyalka’s Eating Bitterness, released earlier this year, have elucidated the human stories without providing a systematic account. Apologists have emphasized tales of success and empowerment while critics have focused on poor working conditions at just a handful of high-profile, multinational factories (last month's Foxconn riot being a case in point). Pai, whose 2008 Chinese Whispers exposed migrant labor in the U.K., spent two years earning migrants' trust in factories, train stations, and worker housing complexes across the country. Eloquent and wide-ranging, Scattered Sand not only does justice, eloquently and comprehensively, to their increasingly marginal position in Chinese society, it also provides useful whirlwind introductions to Chinese labor policy, local government corruption, and minority discrimination, among other issues.
Although mostly focused on the domestic, Pai also reveals Chinese migration patterns to be fiendishly complicated and global in reach. She meets some of the estimated 50,000 Chinese small traders at the Cherkizovsky Market in Moscow, selling counterfeit goods out of wooden shacks until their expulsion by Russian authorities. In one of the book’s most poignant sections, she interviews relatives of the 21 Chinese cockle pickers who drowned in 2004 at Morecambe Bay, northwest England. She describes the epic ordeals of Fujianese migrants, dissatisfied with domestic opportunities, who pay “snakeheads” upward of $30,000 to be smuggled into Western Europe at grave personal risk.
Pai is closely attuned to particularities and details that may matter greatly within China but are little understood outside. She scrupulously records how migrants from particular villages, counties, and provinces tend to cluster in often unpredictable destinations. (Sichuanese migrants are an exception, famously being found everywhere and doing every kind of work). She notices the variety of occupations undertaken by migrants, visiting several “labor markets,” vast and chaotic hiring halls that have no real American parallel. Light and heavy industry, mining, construction, and security are among the industries that rely most on migrants, but there is also sex work, restaurant work, low-level white collar labor, driving motorbike-taxis, cleaning, caregiving, domestic work, and so on.
Given the immensity of China’s rural-urban divide, even domestic migration represents a much greater step than simply picking up and moving. The anachronistic hukou (household registration) system continues to tie all Chinese citizens to an original laojia (hometown), making it difficult for rural migrants to access basic services like health care and education elsewhere. While Chinese cities are largely free of shantytowns and favelas, migrants often live in squalid, remote “man camps,” effectively trapped by their employers. Wage theft and worker abuse are commonplace, labor laws are ignored, minimum wage increases trail inflation, and the country’s one official labor union remains a toothless bureaucracy, beholden only to the state and to employers. On the streets of any Chinese city, tattered or dusty clothes, bronzed skin, rustic manners, and “nonstandard” accents render migrants a caste readily identified and easily exploited.
Yet whatever “bitterness” migrants have to “eat,” they can hardly stay on the farm, as Pai and just about every other observer agree. Demographic and environmental pressures have made rural life unsupportable, especially in contrast to the new prosperity in the cities, which government policy has consistently favored for the past 20 years. Disassembling the previous system of collectives and communes, Deng Xiaoping’s reforms left most peasants with tiny holdings, often too measly for basic subsistence, and paved the way to an enclosure movement led by corrupt local governments. Pai records this dark assessment from one old man, despairingly hanging around a labor market with his unemployed son: “China’s history is all about how the peasantry has been burdened and oppressed, and how each time they rose up to overthrow those in power.”
The immediate catalyst for departure, however, is usually the success stories of a fellow villager. The rural economy may be a dead end, but some of these migrants ply their savings into massive new compounds back in the laojia. In rural Henan, Pai meets the coal dealer Da Cai, one of five brothers, all but the youngest of whom left their native village. After years spent mining coal and driving a cab in a coastal city, he has squeezed his way into the middle class by going into business for himself. In the megacity of Guangzhou, a female factory worker named Ying puts her career above her marriage, takes wage cuts without complaint, steers clear of “those with attitudes” (i.e. strikers), and is eventually promoted to a quasi–white collar position in the product control department, earning up to 1800 RMB ($285) per month. Call it the Chinese Dream. As long as the economic engine keeps chugging, people like Da Cai and Ying—or at least their children—feel they have a reasonable shot at joining the urban middle class, or potentially even vaulting into the managerial, bureaucratic, or entrepreneurial classes where power and wealth are increasingly concentrated.
Yet for every Ying and every Da Cai, there are many migrants who never make it, who move from one precarious job to the next or eventually move back to the village in frustration, minus the compound. For the time being, “inner-city poverty” still sounds like a contradiction in terms to the Chinese ear. The effects of a serious economic slowdown remain unknowable. The number of mass incidents increases each year. Pai is silent on what will become of rural China, where 650 million people still live, agribusiness remains rare, and poverty alleviation efforts are ongoing, recently strengthened under the banner of the “New Socialist Countryside.” “Harmonious development” has been the favorite slogan of China’s outgoing rulers, who just handed over power at the 18th Party Congress. No one knows what the next slogan will be.
Don Flynn, director of Migrant Rights Network, names Scattered Sand as Migration Book of the Year:
Scattered Sand has been named one of the Books of the Year by Jonathan Mirsky, in The Spectator:
Review by Liu Ran, iSun Affairs (journal), Hong Kong:
Design Observer (US) published an extract:
Review by Marina Lewycka, The Political Quarterly, July-September 2013 edition Interview with Ryan Wong, for The Margins (US):
Review by Red Pepper:
Litro magazine (London) published an extract:
BBC Mundo (Latin America) interview:
Socialist Review:
Ceasefire magazine review:
Review by Delia Davin, emeritus professor of Chinese studies at the University of Leeds:
Book review published in Coolloud, Taiwan's labour website
Readers' Words
Don's google review:
The immigrant debate in the developed countries of the global north often seems dominated by the view that the system is cluttered up with chancers and freeloaders looking for an easy life in countries far away. It helps maintain the tone of moral superiority of those judging the people they regard as feckless migrants, clearing the way for them all to be dealt with pre-emptively – arrested detained, and deported.
Pai’s book isn’t directly concerned with the task of challenging these sorts of ideas, but the account she offers of the pressure to migrate which builds up in the villages and rural provinces in China ought really to force people in the developed world to think again about this complex issue. She eschews conscious theorising about the nature of the economy which has emerged since Deng’s opening up (kaifeng) to global markets back in the 1970a and 80s, but the links are there to be traced of how a development path intent on exploiting the country’s comparative advantage in cheap labour meant that the Chinese working class effectively subsidised many of the gains in living standards which accrued for people in the developed world during these critical years.
The book gives us the outline of industrialisation during the period of opening up. State sponsored investment in infrastructure and the promise of low tax and minimal regulation regimes for western business interests brought about rapid growth in the big cities. Meanwhile the peasant class, branded by that status at birth and locked out of many of the benefits of social security, saw their chance to improve living standards on the land arrested by laws which limited the size of their farms to a few small fields, and practices which set the price of produce at levels which scarcely compensated for the labour they had expended.
The structure of the peasant family, binding adult children to support their parents to the end of their lives, was an additional factor that compelled the surplus population of under-employed your farm labourers into the fast developing cities.
Here the yoke of peasant birth reasserted itself once again. China’s system of residence registration requires people moving between towns and provinces to register with the police. This is an expensive business which s open to abuse from corrupt officials taking advantage of the vulnerability of the incomers. For the many thousands unable to pay the fees and bribes the only way to find work is the labour markets which exist in every city. Pai’s book is largely structure around her pitching up in these places in the cities and towns she visited and finding ways to enter into conversation with the people looking for work. As a Taiwanese she had the advantage of generating curiosity amongst the people she encounters who see her as a ‘sister’ coming from a heavenly, fortunate island. Initial contact leads to more substantial relationships, with visits to the workplaces and homes of her acquaintances, and ongoing news exchanges by long-distance phone calls.
The portraits of her subjects are vivid and engage the reader both at the intellectual and emotional level. We find out that it is not unknown for migrant workers to wait months for the wages due to them, and for particularly unscrupulous bosses to decline to pay what is due on the termination of employment. The worker might be without the residence papers needed to make their employment contract legal, so seeking the support of the authorities will be futile. Even when they do have the required papers, corrupt relations between factory owners and the police will often mean that complaints will be dismisses out of hand.
This is not a description of marginal practices that take place on the delinquent fringe of society. Pai explains that fully one-half of China’s rural labour force of 400 million people became superfluous after the disbandment of the village commune system in 1981. Of this group, 100 million began to circulate as internal migrants, making their labour available to the manufacturing enterprises which were dominating the economies of the cities. Inequality, measured by the growing income gap between the towns and the countryside, which moved from a ratio of 2.49 in 1980 to 3.3 in 2009, was also a factor producing displacement and driving rural to city migration.
Pai gives accounts of what this has meant for the family life of ordinary Chinese. Marriages are frequently between partners who are obliged to live far distances apart. Children see their parents perhaps once a year. The loss of a precious job in a turbulent and insecure labour market can put unbearable pressure on couples which produce estrangement and breakdowns. Tensions build between relatives who have lent money to assist in the migration of one member, but who have yet to be repaid even years later. Family life is often presented as full of resentments and mistrust, and with a tremendous burden of guilt on the shoulders of workers who feel a sense of failure over their inability to repay debts and support dependants.
How is all this possible in a country which officially describes itself as socialist? Pai is illuminating on this point. Her argument is that the historical development of socialism in China in the early 20th century emphasised a nationalistic component and placed it far above Marxist conceptions of class struggle and the emancipation of labour. But her account of contemporary life is threaded with the idea that the new realities of life in China might be moving towards the transcendence of this historical limitation, as the proletarian portion of the population grows ever larger and more conscious of its position as a brutally exploited social group.
The pages describing the growth of industrial protests and the first sign that victories can be won in the struggle to advance the rights of workers are the most hopefully in this book. The question is whether these tentative advances will require the Chinese working class to move from its phase of migration towns more settlement and the formation of communities before further progress is made.
If this is the case then we can expect a long protraction of the class struggle, extending far into the future. The structure of Chinese society and the nation, covering vast distances, huge populations and great ethnic diversity – all considered by Pai – as well as the continuing and growing inequalities in the country, suggest that migration will be the fate of millions for the foreseeable future. Indeed, as she discusses in a chapter that takes her workers beyond the boundaries of China to follow efforts to reach the United States, Japan, Korea and Europe, the further integration of the country into global markets point to more migration rather than a gradual reduction.
What will become of China’s ‘scattered sand’ in the meantime? We have to hope that Pai will continue to chronicle their lives in the way she has done in this brilliant book, and its equally riveting predecessor ‘Chinese Whispers’. For those of us who continue to see the emancipation of the working class as the real driving force for progress across all of humanity, we will read her works to see what is emerging in terms of leadership and organisation amongst these labouring millions. Whether the sense of tragic resignation can be replaced by a strategic sense of place in the modern world, and the role which Chinese working people might yet play in leading us towards a socialism worthy of the name.
Chinese blogger and commentator Bo Weilin recommending Scattered Sand:
A Guardian reader recommends that we read this very moving poem, written by a Chinese poet Yushicun, about discrimination against rural migrants in the cities:
据说这个城市有一千万人口, 有的住花园别墅,有的住胡同平屋,有的住在海里头; 可是我们没有一席之地,弟兄们,我们没有一席之地。
我们像亲戚来串门,却也引起它的懊恼; 它让我们呆在原地不动,弟兄们,它让我们原地不动。
我们的原地,荒凉的地方只有不长五谷的山沟, 我们要靠它吃饭人们却痛心疾首; 他们不让我们砍树,弟兄们,他们不让我们砍树。
我们逃离饥饿,寻找幸福,交通部门要走我们的所有, 让我们挤在一起窒息,疯狂,死去,认清自己 不如他们眼里的一条狗,弟兄们,我们不如一条狗。
我们没有身份,派出所的人抓住我们说活该, “如果不交钱你就没有三证,对我们来说你就不存在。” 可是我们存在,我们还活着,兄弟们,我们还存在。
那从我们中间飞升上去的悄悄地说我们是一种文化, 我们游荡去来,像蝗虫,从三国水浒吃到现在; 他们说我们是害虫,弟兄们,他们说我们是祸害。
去到一个科研院所,他们论证说 目前还没有我们的现代化计划,等下辈子再来找它; 但这辈子我们怎么化,弟兄们,这辈子我们怎么变化?
我们交纳了增容费,暂且安身。报纸表达得暖昧, 老太太的小脚跑来可真是敏捷,逢年过节地喊着防贼; 她指的是你和我呀,弟兄们,她指的是你和我。
有人说我们太笨,素质太低,为什么禁止我们进入 很多行业?他们明明知道中关村里的电脑是我们攒的。 有人说我们到城里来只是出丑,同样是修路,扫地,
法律法规却让我们交出自由, 我们规规矩矩地坐在城里人身边; 他们却皱着眉头,弟兄们,他们指我们太臭。
听说学者们的忧愁就像富人的富有,就像我们的匮乏, 他们反抗现代性的异化,听说他们比我们活得光荣伟大; 他们在绝望里令人感动,弟兄们,我们在绝望里无所适从。
我想我听到了这个城市上空有一个声音, 那是陌生却异常的权威,说:“他们必须牺牲。” 噢,我们在他的掌握之中,弟兄们,我们在他的掌握之中。
看到一只狮子狗裹着短袄,别着胸针; 看到门儿打开,让一只猫走进门;看到人们都在出国; 看到学生们扔砖头,看到“我的朋友比尔”在北大演说;
看到春天的花和春天的鸟, 看到一条鱼在饭店前的水池里自在地游, 我们是新奇带一点儿糊涂,弟兄们,是新奇带一点儿糊涂。
我们流浪,从80年代到又一个世纪, 我看见这个城市日新月异,万家灯火; 没有一盏属于我,弟兄们,没有一盏是我们的。
武装警察越来越多,防暴队伍有特殊的任务, 从东单到西单,他们要保卫权威和一种幸福,走去又走回; 他们在寻找你和我,弟兄们,他们在寻找你和我。
Chinese migrant workers in Moscow
Northeastern Chinese labourer in Omsk, Siberia
Workers' accommodation in Omsk, Siberia
Deep winter in Siberia
Farm labourer on the home-returning trip through Siberia
Brick kiln, Hebei
Brick kiln workers from Sichuan