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Young Chinese women sort through piles of scrap metal at the Shanghai Sigma Metals Inc. facility in Shanghai, China. They earn about $125 a month, which is "not much money," concedes their boss. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Young Chinese women sort through piles of scrap metal at the Shanghai Sigma Metals Inc. facility in Shanghai, China. They earn about $125 a month, which is "not much money," concedes their boss. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Globe Focus

China's cultural evolution Add to ...

They are the builders of China's economic miracle: tens of millions of labourers from the countryside who came to the cities willing to work long hours and tolerate almost any hardship in exchange for a slightly better life. But in Chinese they are known as nong min gong, which means "farmer workers" - and strongly suggests that, at some point, they'll go back where they came from.

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Lu Hehua is part of the new wave of migrants. She arrived in the booming factory city of Guangzhou last week, having stood for the entire 10-hour bus ride from Jiangxi, her native province. Outgoing and obviously intelligent, she quickly landed a job in the sales department of a company that makes projectors in a part of Guangzhou known as Science City, one of many industrial districts found in Guangdong, the southeastern province that has been the engine of China's economic transformation. With more than 30 million of the 200-plus million migrants, it is "the workshop of the world."

But Ms. Lu, 21, is looking for a life that is a lot more than slightly better. Although the daughter of a farmer, she doesn't see herself ever returning to the farm. "I don't want to go home. I want to stay here for a long time. I feel I can change my life," she says over a bowl of pork, cucumbers and rice after work. An excited smile dominates her otherwise unlined face as she discusses the journey she has begun and where it may lead.

GREAT EXPECTATIONS

Ms. Lu's ambitions are not uncommon among a generation of migrant workers who are far more educated and worldly than those who came before them. Most, however, still find themselves trapped in dead-end factory jobs, unable to move up the ladder in a society rigged to deny them a place among the urbanites.

Now, their frustration is fuelling an unprecedented wave of strikes that has the potential to upend this country's economic model and raise prices on so much of what occupies store shelves around the world. If the new defiance catches fire, it could even threaten the social "stability" so cherished by the ruling Communist Party.

The government is clearly anxious, making a show of siding with the workers and raising the minimum wage in 27 provinces and cities. In Guangdong - which produces more than one-quarter of everything labelled "made in China" - the monthly minimum increased 20 per cent in March to just over $150. Across the country, wages rose 17 per cent last year.

That doesn't appear to have been nearly enough: According to the state-run China Daily newspaper, the province was hit by at least 36 strikes from May 25 to July 12. Some workers even demanded the right to form independent unions, which is forbidden.

So, while Ms. Lu and her contemporaries dream of changing their lives, the strikes - and the concessions the workers have won - show that they have something even more precious than decent pay: leverage. And they're just starting to realize it.

Ms. Lu shares a dorm room on the outskirts of Science City with five other "factory girls." Her new job, which pays 1,200 yuan (about $185) a month, is considered good by local standards, one that many older workers would love to have. But she sees it only as her first step toward a life completely different from the one she was born into.

"This company has no foreign-trade section. I like speaking English and want to go abroad. I want to be manager of a foreign-trade section, and then finally to open my own business," she says in English she learned at college. "My parents never had ideas like this. They were too busy."

Chinese urbanites now coming of age are frequently called the "Little Emperors" - privileged products of the nation's famed one-child policy who have been doted on incredibly.

Rural families are often allowed more children, but Ms. Lu and her two sisters had parents who invested everything in them, providing the education they never had and encouraging them to pursue opportunities that didn't exist before Deng Xiaoping opened the economy to the world in the 1980s.

The gamble was that their success would alter the destiny of the entire family. But the new migrants want more than just to make things for rich people - they want to buy those things for themselves. "My parents did everything for us - they were so hard-working and so selfless. I will try my best to repay them," Ms. Lu says. But her first paycheque will be spent on clothes, she adds, giggling.

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