The New York Times

August 26, 2003

Chinese Economy's Underside: Abuse of Migrants


HANGZHOU, China — From his precarious perch 60 feet above morning rush hour, Wang Fulin watched the restless crowd below. Arms were drawing arches in air, he recalled. They wanted a swan dive. People were chanting, "Jump, jump!"

Enraged and afraid, Mr. Wang had scaled the metal frame of a billboard to call attention to his grievances. It was his first day in this bustling east coast city, his first trip outside his home province in southwest China. He had been neglected, robbed and abused. Now they wanted blood.

In the end he does not remember how he slipped. He recalls only waking up in a hospital bed with three cracked ribs, a broken hip and a shattered ego. "I told those people that I'm a good man, not a bad man, that I just needed help," he said. "But I could not believe in anybody, and nobody believed in me."

The six-story plunge was the coda of a two-day cross-country odyssey, a personal tale of desperation emblematic of the gamble every Chinese migrant worker takes, leaving family behind to live on the fringes of urban society with limited access to housing, education, medical care and the courts.

Migrant workers are China's untouchables. They are assumed to be behind every unsolved crime. They are the yokels on the street corners of every city, barely able to speak Mandarin Chinese, wide-eyed with fascination or fear.

They are also the dark underside of China's economic success, which has been marked by annual growth of 8 percent for more than a decade and exports to the United States growing so fast that they have surpassed Japan's. In general these people are vulnerable, pliable, cheap to employ and easy to suppress.

The migrant workers number well over 100 million, staffing the factories of Asia's export powerhouse. They work long hours in dangerous jobs for low salaries and no benefits. They are barred from forming unions — the Communist Party allows just one union, its own — and liable to be fired on a boss's whim.

They would not come to the cities if the opportunities did not outweigh the dangers, and the government has taken steps to stop systematic abuses. Beijing recently abolished a law that allowed the authorities to detain rural workers and send them home without legal proceedings.

Yet even the official news media offer regular examples of their extreme distress. There are migrants who threaten suicide when they are not paid. Some are preyed on by job agents or forced into sex slavery. Migrants say the police often beat them for minor infractions, like forgetting to carry an identity card.

"To them we are nothing," said Wang Xiaozhen, 48, a migrant worker in Hangzhou. "They don't take our lives seriously."

Ms. Wang says she was selling fruit on a sidewalk one day in February when patrolmen approached. She scurried away, knowing officials did not permit vendors there. But she says the patrolmen gave chase and beat her severely, causing nerve damage in her neck and back and making it impossible for her to work.

She now spends her days in a Hangzhou park, lying on a wooden roller bed and begging for change. A Hangzhou police duty officer said he had no knowledge of Ms. Wang or her complaint. He also declined to comment on the case of Wang Fulin, who is not related to Ms. Wang.

It was money that persuaded Mr. Wang to leave his lush but poor mountain village in Guizhou Province and travel 1,250 miles to Hangzhou, near Shanghai. He arranged to take a job making cardboard shipping containers for $72 a month, enough to send cash back to his ailing father and his two young children.

Instead he was caught in a psychological drama worthy of Hitchcock, with clever crooks, derelict police officers and naïve miscalculation. Instead of sending money home, he has relied on relatives to raise $1,500 for his medical care, two years' salary at the box factory.

He seemed hale and steady enough before leaving home, relatives said. His sparkling brown eyes, round cheeks and soft lisp make him appear younger than his 30 years. As an only son with a chronically ill father, he tended the family plots alone. He once recruited volunteers to build a five-mile road that eased the isolation of his mountainside hamlet.

This year, though, Mr. Wang needed cash to pay school fees for his 6-year-old son and buy medicine for his father. Mr. Wang's wife left first. She found a job making light-bulb filaments in Hangzhou. She phoned to say a relative had found a job for Mr. Wang nearby.

The day after summer planting was done, he set out, first by foot along the road he built to Nanlong, then by bus to the provincial capital, Guiyang, where he caught the long-haul K-112 train.

It was trying from the start. His $17 ticket was for standing room on the 36-hour trip, and he could not find a spare seat. He was leaning against the bulkhead of car No. 8, around midnight on the second day, when he heard a fellow passenger whisper, "It's about to get crazy."

A group of men with neatly combed hair and leather shoes had begun working their way through the darkened cabin. Mr. Wang watched them pull down bags from the overhead rack and search the contents, pocketing money and valuables.

Soon they spotted Mr. Wang, awake and afraid. They peppered him with questions about where he was from, how much money he was carrying, where he was going. Mr. Wang said he had answered honestly. He was a country boy with very little money. His cousin was meeting him at the Hangzhou station.

"They accused me of hiding wads of cash, maybe inside my pants," Mr. Wang said. "They said I looked like a sly guy." He said he had stripped off his pants to prove he had nothing strapped to his legs. But a man with a mobile phone, the apparent ringleader, kept harassing him.

"He called someone and told them he had a big catch," Mr. Wang recounted. "He said they should meet me at the station — bring some drugs to knock me out."

If they were trying to frighten him it worked, maybe too well.

When the conductor announced that the train was nearing Hangzhou, Mr. Wang darted from car to car to find a railroad policeman who was aboard. He found him in the cafe car, chatting with two train workers. Mr. Wang hurriedly explained that bad people were plotting to steal his money. He needed an escort off the train.

The policeman, Mr. Wang said, asked just one question, "How much money do you have?"

Mr. Wang said he was a poor man with nothing. The policeman waved his hand to indicate he had heard enough and walked away. But the rail workers stayed. One grabbed him from behind. The other ordered him to turn his pockets inside out. Mr. Wang said he produced a small wad of bills, his travel money, and put it on the table. A worker pocketed the cash. The two then dragged him to the caboose. A door was flung open. He was cast into a rail yard near the Hangzhou station.

His instinct was to flee. He scampered up the rail yard wall, losing his sandals in the climb. Breathless and barefoot, he had arrived in downtown Hangzhou. Mr. Wang said he had thought of going to the factory where his wife worked. But did not have the exact street address, and he had no money. He thought of finding his cousin at the station but worried that the crooks awaited him there.

A shop owner let him use a phone. He dialed the police emergency number, but in his home province, Guizhou. "I couldn't understand what people were saying in Hangzhou," he explained. The operator notified the Hangzhou police.

An hour later officers went to the store. He told them about the robbers, the uncaring policeman, the thieving train workers. He needed help, money, a phone. The police looked at him skeptically. Maybe they did not understand him, with his Guizhou accent. They told him someone else would come to handle his case.

No one came. He wandered the street, wondering what to do. Then he saw a billboard, an ad for Hang- zhou's annual festival on West Lake, hanging prominently over a major boulevard.

"My idea was to go up there and make a scene," Mr. Wang said. "Then I could explain what happened and demand that they contact my family."

He climbed a ladder to the top. To attract attention, he took off his jacket and tossed it down to passers-by. His shirt followed, then his belt. His pants fell to his ankles, so he took them off too. He stood on the billboard in his baby blue skivvies, shouting to people below.

Pedestrians stopped and gawked. Soon, reporters and firefighters were on the scene. "I have parents and children — I don't want to die," he yelled, according to one local report. But one bystander shouted back, "When you dive, make it a pretty one." Others joined in chorus: "Jump, jump!"

Firefighters tried talking him down, offering food and water. But when several rescue workers began climbing toward him at once, Mr. Wang scrambled to an edge, apparently looking for an escape. Then he tumbled. A hanging roll of canvas beneath the billboard checked his fall. He landed on a patch of grass.

Mr. Wang is now back in Guizhou. His wife, who found out about the accident from a newspaper report, moved him closer to home, where the hospital fees are lower.

He says he has decided that he just had bad luck. The next time he goes to the big city it will be different. And there will be a next time, given that his family, once merely strapped for cash, is now deeply in debt.

"For our kind of people," he said, "there's no other choice.'

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