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Five Minutes With...Leslie Chang

For a decade, Leslie Chang lived in China working as a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. In 2008, she published Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China, an intimate portrait of young women working on the assembly lines of Dongguan. Prior to her participation in next month’s Shanghai International Literary Festival, she spoke with TALK about China’s migrant work force and the future of writing on China.

How did you get the idea for Factory Girls?

I’ve always wanted to write a book. But in a place as large and complicated as China, I wanted to choose a subject that was representative of the country’s larger trends. Around 2004, I noticed that many foreign newspapers had done series’ about migrant workers but that they tended to focus on the oppressive nature of the factory system. I suspected that migration might also bring adventure and opportunity to these young people. So I flew down to the factory city of Dongguan for the weekend, approached workers on the street and asked them about their lives. I realised that they had rich and interesting stories that few outsiders had paid attention to.

Migration feels like an ideal subject for a couple of reasons. Some 130 million people have left their rural homes to find work in the city. That’s one in ten Chinese – in sheer numbers, this is a phenomenon worth writing about. And the things the migrants are going though – social change, the pressure to improve themselves, opportunities for reinvention, the generation gap with their parents – are experienced by people at all levels of Chinese society. So the story of migrants is in many ways the story of the transformation of Chinese society as a whole.

Do you think positive change for China’s migrant workforce is on the horizon?

Actually, conditions in the factories have improved a lot over time. In the early 1990s, assembly-line workers in a typical factory might make RMB 100 a month; now the average monthly wage is closer to RMB 700 or 800, depending on the city. Two factors helped bring about this change. The big brands such as Nike and Adidas pressured their suppliers to improve conditions for workers. And factory owners realised that better pay and working conditions leads to a more efficient and stable workforce. I think that conditions in the factories will continue to gradually improve, responding to the demands of the marketplace, just as in other sectors of the Chinese economy.

Do you believe this migratory economic system is sustainable in the long term?

Workers are becoming increasingly savvy and demanding about the types of jobs they will accept, and factory owners will have to work harder to attract them. But I believe that the essential nature of the system will not change. China still has more than 600 million people living in the countryside, so there will be a supply of young workers willing to work in factories for years to come. Some factories have set up shop in inland cities away from the coast and this is healthy because it brings more development to the interior. But the extraordinary productivity and efficiency of factory towns like Dongguan is still very attractive to buyers and this arrangement can be sustained for a long time to come. The question is not whether workers enjoy travelling far from home to work long hours on an assembly line – they don’t. But they don’t have many attractive alternatives, so migrant factory work is the logical choice.

China-related publishing in the West has boomed in the last decade; what do you predict will happen with the future evolution of writing on China?

We’ve seen a real flowering of narrative non-fiction writing about China in recent years. Writers are moving beyond big-picture, “whither China”-type books to explore specific worlds and individual lives in great detail. I think these books are really redefining the standards of writing about a foreign country. Not only should you speak the local language, but you need to invest time and energy getting to know some people or a specific place really well. That makes me optimistic about the future of writing about China. 


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