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.


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