By James Jeffrey
When shopping at Home Depot, most Americans don’t give much thought to the origins of the lightbulbs they buy beyond the perhaps half-formed notion that somewhere a giant machine is churning them out at the push of a button.
Come to China’s eastern countryside, however, and you’ll find a dramatically different reality within factories like the one at Tai Yang village west of Hangzhou, where workers assemble 300,000 lightbulbs a month—by hand.
The Lin’an Ning Yang Lighting Electric Appliance Company employs 78 workers to assemble its energy-saving bulbs. At various stations they solder wires to tiny circuit boards, screw bulbs together, test and box them up. Those boxes end up in America, Europe and the Middle East, adding to consumers’ material comfort. They also make it easier for the workers to provide for their families—even harbor dreams of better things to come. Most employees are from the local area of Henglu, while others have traveled from further afield beyond Zhejiang Province.
Though the factory and its workforce are relatively small, they are part of larger trends shaping China’s economy. These include a massive internal migration of laborers going from deep countryside to cities in search of better jobs. The other is a change in direction of such flows. In contrast to earlier policies that led to people moving to prosperous eastern China, the government is now encouraging workers to go west again in a bid to spread opportunity to the country’s less-developed hinterlands.
Despite China’s economic reforms—initiated by Deng Xiaoping in 1978—leading to greater prosperity for much of the country, the income inequality gap has mushroomed between those living around the coast and those inhabiting inland areas. China’s participation in global trade stimulated investment and job opportunities in cities near major ports, causing mass movements from the west to the eastern coastal areas.
An estimated 300 million migrant workers in China have left home in search of work elsewhere in the country. In cities they can be spotted at the train station carrying bundled possessions or selling trinkets and gadgets laid out on blankets along the sidewalk.
“Several years ago laborers went from the inner lands to the coast,” said Zhang Jun, the 35-year-old chief executive of production at the Tai Yang factory. “In recent years, factories are now going to the inner lands and laborers are going back with them.”
Such macroeconomic trends notwithstanding, the workers at the Tai Yang factory have generally found factory jobs in their own backyard. “I’m happy to stay here with the job as my kids are in school,” said 32-year-old Fang Zhengping. He added he previously worked at another lightbulb factory and took this job a year ago because he possessed relevant skills. “For the time being I’ve no plans to move… as I’m quite satisfied with this.”
“It depends,” said another young woman in the factory of moving from the village to a city. “My child is only 11-years-old and too young to go outside, but later, if the income in the city is higher, of course I’ll go.”
She added her husband already has a job outside the village in Lin’an city, where he commutes daily.
“As long as the job is good and the pay is right, I’m willing to go,” she said. “I’m still young and have energy.” She added she’d only consider a city close to the village so she could return to her family on weekends.
For 25-year-old Xiao Bang Yan, who works at the factory, going home on the weekends isn’t an option. She came to the village from Yunnan Province 1,000 miles away and only goes back once a year for Spring Festival—the Chinese New Year.
“I traveled here to see some relatives,” she said, “but met my husband, got married and settled down.” She added that she and her husband have no plans to leave the village.
“Home is here now,” she said.
Yet people continue to move to the cities and on a large scale. China’s urbanization rate is expected to rise to 51.5 percent by 2015, from 47.5 percent now, according to an article appearing in The New York Times in March.
Due to the sheer size of China’s population, that increase translates into significant numbers. The Chinese government recognized this in their new five-year plan for 2011-2015. They plan to build 10 million affordable homes in 2011 and 36 million units over the following period to accommodate the influx to urbanizing areas. That equates to the combined populations of France, Australia and Canada, assuming three people to an apartment, said the New York Times article.
But not all people are looking to the cities, for now content that their life’s narrative follows a different path that sees them shunning the draw of urban factories—happy to live their lives on a smaller scale by working at places like Tai Yang village.
“Of course in the cities the economy is prosperous,” Xiao said, “but in the village are less burdens and competition—it’s less fierce. I have time to look after my family and I enjoy this sort of life.”