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If you wanted to show what it's like to be part of China's economic "miracle" today, you couldn't do better than the opening image of "Last Train Home," a 2009 documentary now being released in the U.S. It's an overhead shot of thousands of people, crushed together in the rain outside the Guangzhou train station. The time is the beginning of Chunyun, the celebration of Chinese New Year during which factories shut down and workers return to their families in the countryside. Some 130 million migrant workers participate in what the film calls the largest human migration on the planet.
Within this seething mass of humanity, Chinese-Canadian director Lixin Fan zeroes in on one couple, Zhang Changhua and his wife Chen Suqin, who work together in a garment factory in Guangzhou. They sit opposite one another at dual sewing machines, performing the numbingly repetitive tasks that are common to any such operation. They sleep in the company dormitory, confined to a space that's barely big enough for a couple of bunkbeds and a night table, separated from other workers by a piece of cloth.
With no employment opportunities in their rural village, Changhua and Chen Suqin have no choice but to seek jobs in the bustling industrial region of southeastern China. To Western eyes, their lives are a monotonous horror. They appear to labor under classic sweatshop conditions. China's Hukou system of household registration prohibits migrant workers from registering their children in city schools, so the parents see their two children, 17-year-old daughter Qin and 10-year-old son Yang, just once a year. Sixteen years ago, Chen Suqin left the infant Qin in the hands of the child's grandmother and sought work more than 1,300 miles from their village. The annual trip home takes two days on the train, in addition to the hours, if not days, spent waiting at the impossibly crowded station for passage.
For all their labors, Changhua and Chen Suqin pay a price far in excess of the discomfort involved in making the journey. They are virtual strangers to their children. In a sense, Qin is the sullen, rage-filled teenager common to societies the world over. But her grievances stem from more than the usual turmoil of adolescence. "My parents barely lived with me," she says. "How can there be any feelings?"
Later in the film, Qin follows the example of many of her friends by dropping out of school and taking factory work in the city of Shenzhen. Her decision distresses her parents, who have pushed their children to excel through traditional Confucian values of hard work, thriftiness and relentless study. (Chen Suqin is disappointed that Yang ranks only fifth in his middle-school class; he replies that he doesn't want to work that hard. And for all the monotony of factory life, Qin declares that it's "still better than being at school.") Changhua and Chen Suqin nurture a dream that's common to all parents: a better life for their children.
It's easy to view the couple as symbols of a larger trend: the drive for a more mature and well-rounded Chinese economy. To date, the nation's stunning economic success has been mostly export-driven. Like Japan, Korea, Vietnam and other emerging countries over the years, China has offered itself as low-cost factory to the world. Western manufacturers are only too happy to take advantage of the cheap labor and huge, docile workforce that China affords. The strategy has supported an economic transformation from rural to industrial (for parts of the country, at least) and rewarded China with substantial reserves of foreign capital.
With that transformation has come a substantial amount of pain. The industrial explosion has lifted millions of Chinese workers out of poverty - at one point in the film, Qin and Yang's reminiscing grandmother makes the jaw-dropping statement that "life was tough back then" - but it has also led to broken families and a soul-crushing existence for millions. One could argue that this is a necessary stage in the maturation of a capitalist, market-based economy. Americans themselves aren't so far removed from the days of child labor and sweatshops - the so-called Gilded Age. And China is beginning to show signs of improving the lot of its workers. Witness the recent strikes that have occurred at Chinese factories, about which the nation's authoritarian government has remained curiously passive. Industrial wages are slowing rising, spurring the emergence of a middle class with real purchasing power. The development is sure to motivate Chinese manufacturers to create their own brands and increase the number of products intended for domestic consumption. (A weary passenger in "Last Train Home" complains that his factory makes every major brand of tennis racket - none of them Chinese.) As China's economy matures, one can expect the nation to relax its repressive rules on residency, boost workers' wages and disperse economic wealth throughout a greater portion of the country. Working parents like the Zhangs will be able to hold down decent jobs without sacrificing their families. Then it will be some other emerging nation's turn to suffer the birth pangs of global capitalism.
Americans, meanwhile, would do well to remember their own painful history of economic development, and be aware of the impact that our cushioned lifestyle has on those distant workers who are required to support it. One particular moment in "Last Train Home" serves as an apt metaphor for the continuing comfort gap between the developed and developing worlds. Some factory workers are laughing over the size of the jeans that they are required to produce for western consumption. One of them remarks: "Have you ever seen a Chinese with a 40-inch waist?"
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