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Migrants torn by distance from Sichuan

Scott Tong May 19, 2008
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Migrants torn by distance from Sichuan

Scott Tong May 19, 2008
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KAI RYSSDAL: China has begun three days of official mourning for the victims of last Monday’s earthquake. The official death toll is now just over 34,000 people, although the government says that’s certain to rise. Business losses in Sichuan province are said to be approaching $10 billion. Million of migrant workers from Sichuan who left home to find work in cities to the east are trying to decide what to do. Go back home to help or stay where they are, keep working, and just send money. From Shanghai, Marketplace’s Scott Tong reports.


SCOTT TONG: Half a dozen workers stare at a TV screen, inside an 8-foot by 8-foot apartment in a Shanghai migrant shantytown. They’re from the quake region of Sichuan, so they’re scanning the screen for familiar faces — dead or alive.

Forty-one-year-old He Zhuoyin just got off the phone with her 16-year-old daughter back home, who has been sleeping in a makeshift tent amid the rubble. By herself.

He Zhuoyin [translation]: She called and broke my heart. She said other kids parents are taking care of them. Why aren’t you here? I told her I’m trying so hard to get home but can’t get a train ticket.

He makes $5 a day washing dishes at a restaurant.

Sitting next to her, Hong Qiusheng is a security guard from the same village. His house? Same story.

Hong Qiusheng [translation]: It’s so tilted everyone’s scared to go in. My wife and I have worked 10 years to build this house. In a few seconds, it was gone.

Hong wants to go home, too, but landslides have blocked the train tracks. So he waits, along with 20 million Sichuan migrants sprawled all across China.

It’s easy to find them. The men turn up at most construction sites. And women work factory jobs, making microwaves, TVs and cell phones.

David Dollar heads the China team at the World Bank.

David Dollar: It’d be very surprising if any American household didn’t have some appliance or clothing that had been assembled with the labor from someone from Sichuan.

Sichuan is poor and has little arable land. It exports more workers than any other province. And very often, Chinese migrants earn five times more than they would back in the countryside.

Dollar: It’s the biggest movement of people ever, I’m pretty sure. The numbers are just so big I don’t see how there can be any previous movement on this scale.

Back in the shantytown, dishwasher He Zhuoyin’s speaks to a relative on her cell phone. But moments later the line goes dead. Her husband says they won’t know the real situation until they actually go back home and see the wreckage.

He Zhuoyin’s husband [translation]: If the government helps out, we can fix our house. If not, our daughter won’t have anywhere to stay. So we’ll bring her to Shanghai to find a job.

He and her husband actually have two kids. This violates the one-child policy. When their younger child was born, local officials showed up at their house. They fined her $100, and then sterilized her.

He: I’m glad I have two kids. If I only had one, and the child got sick, that’d be it. Many kids who died in the earthquake were only children. I told my husband if I were the parent, I’d rather stop living and just die.

Every day last week, He biked to the train station to check on tickets. Finally on Saturday, the tracks were clear. She and five hometown friends bought tickets for $140 roundtrip — that’s about one months’ salary. They plan to leave Tuesday and will travel for 40 hours.

Construction worker Wang Youping will also be on board the train.

Wang Youping [translation]: A colleague just found out he lost his house, and all four of his family members. He left this morning, and didn’t even wait for his paycheck.

Before heading home, many migrants perform one last errand. They shop for new clothes. It may sound odd, since they’re returning to bury loved ones and rebuild houses. But to them, it’s important to project the image of a hometown son or daughter who went to the big city and made good.

In Shanghai I’m Scott Tong for Marketplace.

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