Scattered Sand: The Story of China's Rural Migrants

Overview

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, the award-winning journalist Hsiao-Hung Pai travelled across China, visiting labourers on...

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Scattered Sand: The Story of China's Rural Migrants

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Overview

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, the award-winning journalist Hsiao-Hung Pai travelled across China, visiting labourers on Olympic construction sites, in the coal mines and brick kilns of the Yellow River region, and at the factories of the Pearl River Delta. She witnessed the outcome of the 2009 riots in the Muslim province of Xinjiang; saw towns in rubble more than a year after the colossal earthquake in Sichuan; and was reunited with long-lost relatives, estranged since her mother’s family fled for Taiwan during the Civil War. 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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Editorial Reviews

Pankaj Mishra
“Hsiao-Hung Pai’s intrepid journalism is one of the most revealing guides to contemporary China.”
Bridget Anderson
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.”
Wall Street Journal
“Essential to understand the human reality behind China’s so-called economic miracle.”
Guardian
“Pai, diligent to the end, and writing out of love rather than hatred for China, holds on to the hope that resistance is fertile.’”
Daily Beast
“Eloquent and wide-ranging.”
New Statesman
“The product of thorough reporting among China’s most marginalised citizens shows what can be discovered despite official obstruction.”
Jonathan Mirsky - Literary Review
“What Pai accomplishes is that difficult thing: to combine deftly personal testimonies with statistics. One never wonders, after some particularly ghastly first-person observation, whether this is too awful to be generally true.”
Publishers Weekly
The Chinese “miracle” gets a reality check in this engrossing exposé of the country’s 200 million migrant laborers set adrift since the country’s opening to international markets in the 1980s—a rural population of historically unprecedented size in constant search for work within China and abroad. U.K.-based, Taiwanese-born journalist Pai (Chinese Whispers: The True Story Behind Britain’s Hidden Army of Labour) travels widely to capture the settings, circumstances, and stories of this “new mobile proletariat,” balancing relevant statistics and modern history with voices of the mostly young, desperately insecure workers on the losing end of a widening income gap and increasing rural unemployment. Eliciting the perspectives of individual migrants—working in dangerous occupations as miners, security guards, prostitutes, black market merchants, brick makers, and cellphone assembly-line workers—gives the narrative a palpable human dimension. Pai carefully contextualizes their plight—many face further exploitation and discrimination as one of China’s 55 ethnic minorities—with reference to a strong nationalist strain in Chinese socialism, operative from 1949 on, that punishes dissent while demanding total sacrifice for the sake of the motherland. A moving contribution to the growing literature on the new China, the book will prove relevant for anyone interested in ongoing debates around migrant labor in a globalized economy. (Aug.)
From the Publisher
“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.”—Wall Street Journal

“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

“The Chinese ‘miracle’ gets a reality check in this engrossing exposé ... A moving contribution to the growing literature on the new China, the book will prove relevant for anyone interested in ongoing debates around migrant labor in a globalized economy.”—Publishers Weekly

“Eloquent and wide-ranging, Scattered Sand not only does justice, eloquently and comprehensively, to [migrant workers’] 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.”—Ross Perlin, The Daily Beast

“The product of thorough reporting among China’s most marginalised citizens shows what can be discovered despite official obstruction.”—New Statesmen

“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.”—The Observer

“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

“What Pai accomplishes is that difficult thing: to combine deftly personal testimonies with statistics. One never wonders, after some particularly ghastly first-person observation, whether this is too awful to be generally true.”—Jonathan Mirsky, Literary Review

“In documenting lives and deaths of stunning deprivation and equally stunning dignity, [Pai] is helped considerably by her style, which is restrained and workmanlike. She has no axe to grind and will not stoop to pity; she is here to tell us what is happening in the fields and factories of the world we share.”—Book News

Kirkus Reviews
A Taiwanese-born investigative journalist reports on the conditions facing migrant workers in China's rural interior. Hsiao-Hung Pai (Chinese Whispers: The True Story Behind Britain's Hidden Army of Labour, 2008) 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. She recounts her interviews with individual peasants, during which she urged them to describe their experiences in their own words. The author traveled from Russia, where the closing of a large outdoor market in Moscow sent thousands of Chinese migrant workers back home, to China's industrial northeast, to the province of Sichuan, the site of a devastating earthquake, and to its southern manufacturing centers. She also spent time in Guangdong province, where a special economic zone with thousands of new factories has brought great prosperity to the upper-middle class but for migrant workers has meant exploitation, homelessness and suicide. At one point, the author accompanied her mother on a trip to her home province of Shandong, a trip that provides her with the opportunity to fill in readers on family history as it entwined with Chinese history. In Fujian province, where tens of thousands of peasants have sought jobs overseas, many going to Japan, the United States and Europe, she introduces readers to Xiao Lin, whose misadventures in trying to escape to the West are material for a book of its own. Her final stop was the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in China's northwest, where the Uighur ethnic minority are considered security risks and endure harsh discrimination and grinding poverty. Unlike Michelle Dammon Loyalka's Eating Bitterness (2012), which concentrates on a few rural migrants in one city, Hsiao-Hung Pai's examination ranges across the whole country and provides background information on factory conditions, political corruption and worker unrest. A grim but keen view of the dark underside of China's prosperity.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781781680902
  • Publisher: Verso Books
  • Publication date: 6/4/2013
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 1,393,009
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Hsiao-Hung Pai is a freelance journalist, whose report on the Morecambe Bay tragedy for the Guardian was made into the film Ghosts. Her book on undocumented Chinese immigrants in Britain, Chinese Whispers, was shortlisted for the Orwell Book Prize in 2009. She lives in London.

Gregor Benton is Professor Emeritus of Chinese History at Cardiff. He has published twelve prior books on Marxism, political humor, the history of the Chinese Communist Party, Red guerillas in the 1930s, the Sino-Japanese War, dissent in China, Chinese Trotskyism, Hong Kong, the theory of moral economy, and overseas Chinese. His Mountain Fires: The Red Army’s Three-Year War in South China, 1934–1938 (1992) won several awards, including the Association of Asian Studies’ prize for the best book on modern China.

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