Hsiao-Hung Pai

The writer on the hidden struggles of China's exploited underclass

Writer Hsiao-Hung Pai spent two years travelling throughout China by train, collecting the stories of some of the country’s 200 million impoverished rural migrants for her recent book, Scattered Sand.

The 44-year-old’s interest in China’s rural migrants was piqued while researching her first book, Chinese Whispers (2008), an award-winning exposé about the dangerous working conditions of “illegal” Chinese immigrant labourers in the UK, which developed from her work covering the Morecambe Bay cockle-picking tragedy for The Guardian (the basis of Nick Broomfield’s acclaimed 2006 film, Ghosts). Scattered Sand tells stories of peasants moving through the country to search for work, at the whims of employers who demand long hours for low wages, pay them infrequently (if at all) and fire them when they get sick, pregnant or old, or if they voice complaints. Chinese critics have called her statistics and background knowledge into question, and the book is seen there as a very western social commentary on the country. But the discussion around it is part of a growing trend in China of public debate and social critique. Recent schemes like 'Invite a Migrant Worker to a Meal' (which has been televised) are minor, but indicate that in-roads are slowly being made towards readdressing the problem.

Why do you think China’s migrant workers are treated so badly?
Hsiao-Hung Pai: Peasants have always been seen as inferior – the countryside is a production backyard for the cities. In the late 70s/early 80s a lot of peasants began to move into the cities and people weren’t used to seeing peasants taking their jobs and using their services, so a fear developed. The Hukou household registration system developed to stop movement into the cities. For a peasant to apply for Hukou transfer is extremely difficult – in some cities you need a high-school education, which is virtually impossible for a peasant. It’s a way to stop them using services and state schools. A third of Beijing’s population is made up of migrant workers, and they have very few rights. Chinese people don’t like to use the word segregation – they think it’s very harsh, but the reality is even harsher.

What’s life like for migrant workers, especially for women?
Hsiao-Hung Pai: They start very young. Their parents might encourage them to leave home as teenagers and go into the city, then they move from city to city. The manufacturing factories in the south always recruit young women from the countryside. They’re in their early 20s – they want to go into the cities and have a new life and settle there. Women have been seen as a very obedient workforce, willing to accept bad conditions.

What was the most shocking thing you encountered?
Hsiao-Hung Pai: I visited the families of the cockle pickers who drowned in the Morecambe Bay disaster. One woman’s husband had borrowed £20,000 to come here (England), and died a few weeks after arriving. She was left with a very large debt and was working as a funeral drummer – her wages were £60 per month. She was trying to raise two kids, a boy and a girl. What really surprised me was that she was going to borrow another £20,000 to send her 16-year-old daughter to England. Her daughter would pretend to be an orphan, and live and work here to help the family. I find it moving and very sad – there’s no guarantee her daughter would ever go back to China, and if she does it will take years.

How do migrant workers feel about their situation?
Hsiao-Hung Pai: A lot of people are filled with anger. Being angry for such a long time makes you become bitter. People told me, ‘We are like scattered sand. We have no organisational power, we can’t do anything to change anything.’

How large a role do corruption and bribery play?
Hsiao-Hung Pai: Corruption goes all the way up. Local authorities are known to be corrupt – they collude with local businesses. If say, miners are killed or injured, it would be very difficult to receive compensation – there are coverups, and the media collude as well. You hear that reporters are bribed to help cover up scandals and deaths. Even for a graduate to get a state job, they have to give money to someone.

Will the recent strikes by factory workers improve their situation?
Hsiao-Hung Pai: Yes, the situation is changing now with these strikes, and in fact women have been in the majority. The last really big strike was in 2011 in Dongguan. A strike in one factory always leads to another, like a wave. When there is enough industrial action, it gives you confidence, and some of them have managed to increase their wages. It all makes a difference, and it’s raising awareness in the west.

What needs to change in China and is there anything people in the west can do?
Hsiao-Hung Pai: People always talk about consumer power, but I don’t think that not buying an Apple product made at Foxconn is going to help. Look at Tesco and Sainsbury’s – they’re guilty of exploiting Chinese migrant workers, but as a consumer what you can do is very limited. The main thing that has to go is Hukou. We need to support initiatives that encourage migrants to form their own independent unions, and they need an institutional body to protect them. We need to encourage an active civil society in China!

How do people in China view the system?
Hsiao-Hung Pai: They don’t feel a connection with politics as they can’t take part. Nothing is transparent. It’s a very strange combination: wild capitalism combined with political authoritarianism. I heard English visitors say it’s more capitalist than anywhere they’ve been.

Why is there a discord between the proglobalisation narratives we usually hear and the reality?
Hsiao-Hung Pai: I suppose it’s because western media are largely neo-liberal. The situation for migrant workers is a result of the Gaige Kaifang (‘Reform and Opening-Up’) economic reform period in China, which was promoted and encouraged by the west – they wanted China to open up to the market.

In the book you say that middle-class Chinese are uncomfortable with criticism of how migrant workers are treated. Why?
Hsiao-Hung Pai: Yes, people in the cities have a deep-seated prejudice. The first time I heard it was unbelievable. You hear it from educated university kids! Even here in the UK, when you meet Chinese migrants from the countryside versus someone from a middle-class background, the outlook on life is just completely detached. Everything is different – money, wealth, status – they don’t meet.

You’re currently working on a book and documentary about Chinese sex workers in the UK. How is that project going?
Hsiao-Hung Pai: It’s mainly two women’s stories. They’re young, alone and don’t know the country or the language, so they become very vulnerable. I did six weeks’ undercover work as a maid in brothels in Stratford and Finchley. I was cooking, looking after the women, opening the door for the customers, doing accounting. I pretended I was a single mum and they thought I was really desperate, so the boss really bullied me. They even tried to persuade me to ‘help out’ when they were busy, when there were not enough women. I got so depressed in the end, I needed to get out.

You’ve heard so many difficult stories – what’s kept you going?
Hsiao-Hung Pai: I’m just doing what I enjoy. I guess I do it because I’m a migrant myself. I’m a foreigner, an outsider. I can relate very well to people in these situations.

Scattered Sand is out now, published by Verso

Photo by James Anastasi

This interview was taken from the December Issue of Dazed & Confused