Factory of the World: Scenes from Guangdong

Three images of factories

Railway Station

Guangzhou’s train station was a depressing sight. It was nearly midnight and the day’s waves of travelers had receded, leaving a tidemark of litter on the concrete floor. The place was filthy and cold. Many of the city’s jobless migrants had come to spend the night here. They arrived in groups of seven or eight, men and women from Guangxi and Yunnan, mostly in their thirties and forties, pulling heavy plastic bags of personal belongings across the station floor. They’d search for a corner and sit, leaning against their bags. Some dozed off quickly, weary after a day spent walking around the city looking for work. Others kept their eyes wide open, on the watch for security officers.

These were migrants who hadn’t been able to return home after the last round of layoffs. Some had lost their jobs weeks before but stayed on in Guangzhou because they hadn’t been paid and couldn’t afford to buy even a bus ticket home. Others had lost their jobs that very day, and since their living quarters had been provided by their employers, they’d became homeless immediately. They certainly couldn’t afford a private rental — the cheapest single room in the city cost about 400 yuan per month, about half their previous monthly wage So they clustered here, sleeping on the station floor until morning, when the police and station staff would chase them away. But once night fell again, they’d return and find corners in which to sleep.

There are three to four million migrant workers living in Guangzhou, which has a total population of about ten million. Many of those I saw sleeping at the station, as well as those who might have left for their villages after a few homeless nights, were first-generation migrants who’d come to Guangzhou in the hope of higher wages and abundant opportunities. Guangzhou was meant to be a life-changing experience. As many of them told me, most had been working there for more than a decade; they had devoted their prime to this city.

Workers outside factory

Factory workers

Women factory workers
Top: Guangzhou train station. [Photo by Lim CK] Middle: Factory in Guangzhou. [Photo by gb314] Bottom: Factory in Huizhou, Guangdong. [Photo by dcmaster]

Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province, became one of China’s major ports and trading centers in the middle of the 18th century. Because of its reputation for receptiveness to change and exposure to foreign influences, the city — known historically as Canton — was widely considered the most Westernized in China. Yet despite many decades of political upheaval, the tumultuous transfer of power in the mid 20th century from the Chinese Nationalists to the Communists, and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, had brought little improvement to most people’s lives. …

Today Guangdong has developed into China’s largest provincial economy, with a GDP surpassing five trillion yuan.  1 It is the center of China’s export-led manufacturing industries; the Pearl River Delta region, comprising nine prefectures — Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Zhuhai, Dongguan, Zhongshan, Foshan, Huizhou, Jiangmen and Zhaoqing — and the autonomous regions of Hong Kong and Macau, has been China’s strongest magnet for international capital since the economic reform that began three decades ago. After Deng Xiaoping announced the decision to open China to world markets at the Third Plenary session of the Eleventh CPC Central Committe in December 1978, three cities in Guangdong — Shenzhen, Zhuhai and Shantou — became together the first of four Special Economic Zones established to pilot the reforms. Guangzhou later joined the group as one of the first mainland cities to be opened to the world market; its Free Trade Zone, set up in 1992, hosts international trade, processing industries and computer software.

The Special Economic Zones quickly began drawing international capital to the region. 2 Today Guangdong province hosts an estimated 60,000 factories, which every day produce some $300 million worth of goods and account for about 30 percent of China’s exports and one-third of the world’s production of shoes, textiles and toys. In a speech in December 2008 marking the 30th anniversary of national economic reform, Wang Yang, secretary of the CCP’s Guangdong provincial committee and widely considered one of the future leaders of the nation, claimed that Guangdong had sustained an average annual growth rate of 13.8 percent over the past three decades.

Man and bench
Concrete yard between factory worker dormitories, Shenzhen. [Photo by dcmaster]

This is a success story, to be sure; but it has been a success story only for some. “Guangzhou has become the first Chinese city to reach a per capita income of $10,000,” the provincial government announced in early 2007.  But it was later discovered that this figure had not factored in the estimated 3.7 million migrant workers living and working in the city at the time: a blatant exclusion which underscores the reality of the widening wealth gap. In November 2011, a survey conducted by Guangzhou Society and Public Opinion Research Centre revealed a high degree of class polarization, with many low-income interviewees reporting significant dissatisfaction with the gaps in income and living standards. Indeed, you become aware of the huge disparities as soon as you enter the city; when migrants arrive they are overwhelmed not only by the vast transport system and endless traffic jams, the thick fumes and suffocating air, but also by the visible inequality — the most ruthless aspect of Guangzhou’s urbanity — between the haves and have-nots. In Guangzhou you see the upper-middle classes shopping in world-class malls, dining in restaurants run by famous chefs, drinking in luxurious wine bars, spending in a single night what it takes a manual worker two months to earn; all the while beggars wait outside and migrants search for a floor for the night.

Factory Floor

But — at least until the global financial crisis — there was no lack of places for migrants to work. Automobiles, petrochemicals, and electronics and information technology together account for over 40 percent of the economy in Guangdong. Major corporations like Apple, Sony, Motorola and Toshiba manufacture many of their products in Shenzhen. Guangzhou is one of the centers of the Chinese auto industry, and the big petrochemical multinationals — including Shell, Total, Du Pont, Exxon, et al. — operate in the city as well. And the list goes goes on and on.

Migrant labor is what powers the export-led manufacturing empire. The wages of factory workers in Guangzhou are about one-twelfth of working-class wages in the United Kingdom. Not only do workers have few social rights, thanks to the exclusion and segregation institutionalized by the hukou household registration system; in practice they also have few labor rights, since employers often abuse the existing legal protections. And since the migrant labor force is seldom organized, workers struggle alone against injustice and exploitation. Some see no way out, and some find the most tragic way out. …

Foxconn dormitory, Shenzhen. [Photo by yuan2003]

In 1988, the Hon Hai Precision Industry Company, Ltd., commonly known as Foxconn Technology Group, the world’s biggest manufacturer of electronics components and a major supplier to Apple, opened its largest plant in Shenzhen. There, in addition to components for the iPod, iPad and iPhone, Foxconn produces motherboards for Intel and parts for the Sony PlayStation, Nintendo Wii and Amazon Kindle, among others. In the summer of 2009 Foxconn also produced notorious headlines when one of its employees, Sun Danyong, a 25-year-old engineer from Yunnan province, jumped to his death from his 12th-floor apartment apparently, according to the China Labour Bulletin, “after management accused him of stealing an iPhone prototype.” 3 Foxconn made headlines again in 2010, when 14 workers committed suicide, followed by three more in 2011. …

Southern Weekend, a newspaper in Guangzhou, sent the reporter Liu Zhiyi to work undercover at Foxconn for 28 days. He reported grim working conditions and a harsh labor regime. Employees were compelled to work long hours with short breaks to sleep and eat; they were required to sign a “voluntary overtime affidavit,” relinquishing the right to keep their overtime to the 36-hour legal limit; but wages were so low they had to work a lot of overtime to make ends meet. Alarmingly, many migrant workers believed they weren’t likely to find better conditions elsewhere in the region generally. …

Waste ground
Migrant workers’ camp in Shenzhen. [Photo by dcmaster]

Employee Dormitory

I went to visit the factory of Yin Yu Decorative Lighting Co., Ltd, in the town of Heshan, on the southern outskirts of Guangzhou. Built in 1732 under the Qing emperor Yongzheng, Heshan is surrounded by mountains and, according to local legend, in the old days there were many white geese (the literal translation of Heshan is “goose mountain”). By Chinese standards the town is tiny, with a population of 460,000, and it seemed a tranquil place, with unassuming concrete buildings; but since the reform and opening up, Heshan has attracted foreign capital and a number of industries, including electronics, printing, textile and shoe manufacturers. Founded in 1979 and located in the center of town, Yin Yu Ltd. is the largest workplace in Heshan, with thousands of employees (the company’s website states only that Yin Yu has “more than 100 employees”). The majority of migrants here work in the factories of Yin Yu, assembling and producing lamps and light fixtures for sale in China and for export to Southeast Asia, Europe and the U.S.

When I arrived, assembly workers were on the day shift, and the streets were quiet. The few workers I did see were office clerks, whose ranks included both locals and migrants. I noticed one young woman, with short hair and attractive almond-shaped eyes, dressed in school-uniform-like work clothes: a white shirt and black trousers. She walked energetically, with her head up, and looked my way. When I introduced myself and said I was interested in hearing about her working life, she was immediately excited. Her name was Ling; she was 22 and came from Hubei province. Though she hadn’t gone to university, she had studied business administration at a vocational college back home. After graduation she found an office assistant’s job at Yin Yu Ltd. Her parents had been thrilled: working for an international company in Guangdong was seen as a marvelous achievement. Ling’s parents believed their daughter would earn a regular income and eventually do very well.

Ling was a talker, the sort who befriends people easily. … “Come and have tea,” she said, inviting me to her dormitory as we walked past shops and noodle stores. Ling’s dormitory was a block of apartments with a public square in the middle. As we approached, I realized that the building was well guarded and Ling would have to smuggle me past the security officers. “Don’t worry. Just follow me,” Ling said. “You’re female and this is a women’s dorm — they won’t even notice you.” Ling was right — the guards didn’t even look at me.

Woman with luggage
Migrant worker heading home for the Chinese New Year, Shenzhen. [Photo by dcmaster]

I followed her upstairs and through the corridors. Ling’s room was tiny but bright; she’d left the window open, letting in the sunshine and breezes. She pulled over a wooden stool for me, while she sat back on her metal bunk bed, which occupied half of the room. “My roommate’s at work,” she said. “She works in the office, too.” On her desk, piled with instant noodle packets, there was an electric kettle; Ling boiled some water and poured me a jar of green tea. Then she confessed why she hadn’t been concerned about breaking the dormitory rules: She was planning to quit her job.

Ling had spotted Yin Yu Ltd.’s recruitment advertisement back in Hubei. She’d just graduated and was eager to start work — to begin an independent life away from home. Her college degree got her a job at the lowest level of administrative work in the company — a job for which thousands had competed, Ling believed. She expected basic rights and entitlements, and respectful treatment.

Ling had been quickly disillusioned. She told me how stressed and overworked she was; from the start she’d been required to work many hours of unpaid overtime, often until 11 pm. The overtime was semi-compulsory: If you refused , you were seen as unwilling to work hard and would not be considered for future promotions. Performance was paramount. “I find it hard to breathe,” she said, describing how anxious she felt every day. “I have no life.” Yet her office job was envied by the assembly workers; the line workers could never imagine leaving the factory and walking around town during their shift hours. Also, Ling could hope for advancement; her position wasn’t “dead end,” which was how the factory workers described their own jobs.

Dormitory building
Factory workers’ dormitory in Shenzhen. [Photo by dcmaster]

But Ling described the promise of promotion as dubious — a “myth.” Since arriving at Yin Yu Ltd. months earlier, Ling had never been given a contract; and without a contract, nothing was certain. This prompted me to ask whether she expected to receive any compensation package when she left. “No, of course not,” Ling said emphatically. “They want to give me no choice except to leave without one single yuan in my pocket.” Ling explained that it was common practice for the company to offer a choice between “voluntary departure” (zi-li) and “resignation” (ci-gong). Voluntary departure doesn’t require management approval, but you forfeit any unpaid wages; resignation requires official approval, upon which you receive your full wages. But it was a no-win situation: If Ling chose to plead for approval, the management would likely refuse, forcing her either to remain or leave voluntarily without pay. Ling resented this kind of entrapment. “Life’s too short, and I am still young,” she said. “I don’t want to work under this kind of immense pressure and manipulation anymore — I’m not even given the most basic respect.”

What was she going to do after she left? She wanted to start her own business back in Hubei. The lonely months in Guangdong had made her homesick. What sort of business? She raised her eyebrows, and said she had a wild idea. In Hubei, the rising middle-class increasingly liked to keep pets. The households of the new bourgeoisie were investing not only in their one child; they were also lavishing money on pedigreed cats and dogs. “I’d like to open a pet shop,” Ling said, “There’s a demand to be met.” Her ambition was to earn enough to lead an independent life — to buy an apartment in town and find someone suitable to marry.

Ling walked to the narrow balcony and looked across the courtyard to the other wing of the building, where clothes had been hung out to dry. This was the kind of dormitory, she observed, where the “working girls” (dagongmei), mostly unmarried women from the rural provinces, lived. “Look at those apartments,” she said, pointing across the way. “They are so overcrowded, eight workers to a four-square-meter room.” Ling knew she was one of the luckier ones; as an office worker, she qualified for more spacious housing — a room shared by just two. This was the only advantage Ling enjoyed.

Women in dormitory room
Dormitory, Shenzhen. [Photo by Steve Jurvetson]

For manufacturers like Yin Yu Ltd., the dagongmei have become the preferred workers; with few commitments and a strong drive to succeed in the cities, they are usually prepared to accept the lowest wages. They make up more than 70 percent of the manufacturing workforce in the Pearl River Delta.

Like many young women working away from home, Ling aspired to material comforts and new experiences. She’d always liked fashion, and followed clothing trends and enjoyed shopping for stylish shoes. … Ling’s roommate had recently suggested that they go together to the shops of nearby Guangzhou. The temptation had been strong, but Ling decided against spending her hard-earned wages on a spree. How could she explain that to her parents, who’d invested every hope in her career? She knew she had to maintain a modest lifestyle and save up for her future.

The afternoon passed quickly as we drank tea and chatted. At 4 pm, Ling said she had to return to work. I walked back into town with her, thanked her for her hospitality, and we said goodbye outside the factory. I watched as she walked through the gate and into the distance of the factory. The daytime workers would be coming off their shift at 5 pm. The heat was hard to bear — now around 30 degrees Celsius, in the middle of the summer in late July. …

Abandoned factory
Abandoned factory, Shenzhen. [Photo by dcmaster]

Railway Station, Again

Migrant workers’ discontent deepened after the beginning of the global recession. Jobs in Guangdong were being lost as factories shut down, one after another. The shoe manufacturing industry in the province, for instance, which supplies half of the global demand for footwear, was cutting many jobs; in 2007 about 1,000 shoemaking factories in the province shut down after laying off 150,000 to 200,000 workers. Then in 2008, approximately 10 percent of the 60,000 to 70,000 Hong Kong-owned factories based in Pearl River Delta closed following profit losses, including many that supplied the U.S. toy manufacturers Mattel and Hasbro. And the migrant workers have claimed that they were dismissed without notice and with unpaid wages, in violation of China’s relatively new Labor Contract Law.

According to the Hong Kong-based newspaper Dagongbao, in the first ten months of 2008, 15,661 small and medium-size manufacturers in Guangdong either closed down, suspended or relocated their operations. In Dongguan, 117 factories reportedly shut down between September and October, and the factory owners fled, leaving more than 20,000 workers without pay. China’s State Council issued a notice in February 2009 requiring companies to notify local labor authorities before layoffs involving 20 or more employees or 10 percent of staff; but there were no legal penalties for companies that did otherwise. The government released figures in April 2009 showing that since 2008 around 25 million migrant workers had lost their jobs all over the country as a result of factory closures and business collapses. 4 In Guangdong alone, it was estimated, several million had lost jobs. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, about 10 percent of migrant peasants had lost city manufacturing jobs and 80 percent of them were now back in the cities trying to find work.

Beginning in 2007, millions of workers began to leave Guangdong to return to their home villages in Sichuan, Guangxi, Yunnan and other provinces, creating a backflow of migration. But since 2009, it’s estimated that about 9.5 million had already returned to Guangdong, once again hoping to find work. Few were sure if there was work to be found, or how long those jobs might last. The nighttime scene at the Guangzhou train station suggested that the situation was not looking good.

Editors' Note

This essay is adapted from “Factory of the World: Recession in Guangdong,” a chapter in Scattered Sand: The Story of China’s Rural Migrants, just published by Verso. It appears here with the publisher’s permission.

  1. This figure reflects data for 2011; see China Briefing.
  2. Special Economic Zones are characterized by economic systems and policies distinct from those of their host city or province. SEZs are listed independently in national plans and enjoy provincial-level authority to manage their economies. Perks for foreign capital include tax incentives and greater independence in trade activities, and the option of setting up Chinese-foreign joint ventures, partnerships, or wholly foreign-owned businesses. In the SEZs, goods are produced mainly for export. In the case of Guangzhou, proximity to Hong Kong was a great advantage.
  3. Foxconn and its subsidiaries also operate in the United States, Japan, the United Kingdom, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Mexico, Brazil, India, and Vietnam. In February 2010, Foxconn workers in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, rioted and set the plant on fire to protest against forced unpaid overtime. Foxconn is not the only Chinese factory at which suicides have occurred. In 2010 workers at one its rivals, Huawei Technologies, also in Shenzhen, killed themselves, apparently as a result of working long hours, according to the China Labour Bulletin. As a result Chinese “netizens” have questioned the company’s aggressive corporate culture — they call it “wolf culture” — which they claim compelled overworked employees to sleep in their workplace and which they believe has caused the deaths of workers who saw no hope of improvement in their conditions. Foxconn’s death toll did not stop there. In May 2011, a 20-year-old male worker jumped off a building; in July of that year, a 21-year-old worker killed himself in the same way. And in November, 20-year-old Li Rongying committed suicide by jumping off a four-story building.
  4. See The World Bank: News & Broadcast.
Hsiao-Hung Pai, “Factory of the World: Scenes from Guangdong,” Places Journal, October 2012. Accessed 02 Oct 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/121001

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