Economic odysseys

Scattered Sand: the story of China’s rural migrants, by Hsiao-Hung Pai, reviewed by Greg Fay

January 6, 2013
2 min read

Scattered Sand delivers an intimate portrait of China’s migrant workers’ shared quest to earn a living. Dozens of interviews shape the narrative in an impressive range of locations and industries across China, and as far as Russia and the UK. They cut across ethnicity as Yi, Uyghur, Tibetan, and native Taiwanese voices weave in unique accounts of persecution.

The book gives context for recent Chinese labour media coverage, including suicides and unrest at Apple supplier Foxconn. While highlighting export-oriented factories in the Pearl River Delta, Hsiao‑Hung Pai also delves into interior China’s brick-making kilns and coal mines, major industries rarely covered by international media, and even drug trafficking and prostitution. She visits labour markets nationwide to show the human faces of unemployment. Jobseekers warn of scams and report mostly failures; the greatest successes are gained through personal connections.

Pai proves the power of connections by visiting the families of migrant workers in Britain she came to know for her first book, Chinese Whispers. Most heartbreaking are her interviews with families of the 23 Chinese migrants killed in the 2004 Morecambe Bay cockling tragedy.

Pai’s own family ties are compelling. Her mother moved to Taiwan during the 1949 communist revolution, leaving family behind in rural Shandong province. She discovers that economically their countryside has also been left behind, and they are mired in the same desperate poverty that motivates many rural people to seek urban jobs.

Coupling contemporary coverage with straightforward political and cultural history, the book analyses major historical events, including the Olympics and global financial crisis. After the Wenchuan earthquake, Pai complements an eyewitness account of a collapsed school encircled by erect commercial buildings with an explanation of the corruption that caused this travesty.

A strong sense of history informs Scattered Sand’s analysis of a wide range of industries, events and communities, and it is particularly useful to situate China’s turbulent history within its breakneck development. Through superb storytelling and historical analysis, Pai succeeds in showing many human faces of Chinese growth.


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself

Secrets and spies of Scotland Yard
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

How progressive is the ‘progressive alliance’?
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank

The YPJ: Fighting Isis on the frontline
Rahila Gupta talks to Kimmie Taylor about life on the frontline in Rojava

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill

Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility

Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports

From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices

How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed

In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design

Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform

Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out

Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris

Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant


1