In China's heartland, tough factory jobs are a step up

ZHENGZHOU, China — Wearing a cheap blue jacket too thin for the cold, Han Canhao showed up at a recruitment center looking to get a job.

The skinny 18-year-old with acne on his face and a small bag of clothes said he was nervous about what could come next.

The work didn't sound great. Han will probably be spending his days hunched over an assembly line for a salary that would be illegal in the U.S. — $300 to $365 a month after half a year's employment, the figure varied between interviews and company literature.

But in China's eastern central Henan Province, where some 100 million people jostle to make a living, those waiting at job fairs in Zhengzhou last week said it's a welcome change from having to decide between a lifetime of tending wheat fields or becoming a migrant worker.

Many China observers say that sense of momentum from one generation to the next in China is crucial to understanding why the tumult that's wrecked oppressive Arab regimes in recent months hasn't yet visited the Middle Kingdom.

Perhaps as much as bruising police-state tactics and widespread propaganda, the ability of China's authoritarian regime to continue delivering economic growth helped it prevent local flare-ups from spreading in recent years.

For all the frustrations about the nation's deep social problems, the lives of most regular Chinese people have in many ways improved during the past few decades.

Even in Henan, a place with a rough reputation of poverty and overwhelming population numbers, disposable income for urban residents increased more than tenfold since 1990, according to state statistics. In that same period, net income in rural areas went up by more than nine times.

To Han, the difference is plain — his parents are migrant laborers at a factory in the far-off city of Guangzhou and come back to visit only twice a year. "I don't want to have the same life they do," he said.

It's a fate he might avoid.

The company he planned to sign up with, Foxconn, would first send him hundreds of miles away to Shenzhen for training, and then bring him back to a new factory in Henan.

"My parents are farmers, but now I have much better opportunities," said Hu Guanghuan, another young man applying for a job at Foxconn, which contracts with Apple and other Western companies to produce electronics. "It's getting easier to find a job with a big company in Zhengzhou now."

That's not to say there isn't anger about corruption, wide income disparity and, indeed, workplace conditions. Foxconn was embroiled in controversy last year after at least 10 of its workers committed suicide, most of them at a mammoth complex in Shenzhen amid reports of a stressful work environment. An e-mailed request for comment from Foxconn for this story did not receive a reply.

But the factory in Zhengzhou, along with others opening up in large western cities such as Chengdu and Chongqing, is a sign of a geographic shift in economic activity that the government is promoting to, among other things, reduce the population of some 200 million migrant workers.

A move away from China's concentrated manufacturing centers in coastal areas such as Shenzhen, in southern China, could well bring more balanced economic growth in the country's heartland and, perhaps, soften complaints about inequalities, said Zhang Zheng, an associate professor of economics at Peking University who researches urbanization.

While hardly a broad sample, a gathering of recent Foxconn hires waiting for a bus ride to Shenzhen gave a glimpse of concerns and hopes in this corner of China. Neither local authorities nor Foxconn recruiters apparently knew a reporter was present, and the conversations seemed candid.

"Foxconn is opening a factory in Zhengzhou so that they can pay less," said Feng Guozhong, a 45-year-old farmer with mud on his shoes who was seeing off his 22-year-old son.

Gao Zhaiwei, 29, cut Feng off before he could say more.

After years of very hard, and smelly, work at a livestock feed facility, Gao said, he's looking forward to living in a Foxconn dormitory.

"Even if they pay me less in Zhengzhou than they do in Shenzhen, it'll be more than I was making before," said Gao, whose jeans looked worn. "Besides, I'm not worried about work conditions there because this job fair is being held by the government."

Chang Lipeng was standing nearby and laughed when he heard Gao's words.

Heads turned. The 21-year-old, a cigarette in one hand and work papers in the other, explained that "there's no difference if the government holds the job fair or if someone else does, the government cheats people just like everybody else."

The crowd giggled. A few moments later, Chang said in a softer voice that despite some worries, he's excited about the pay raise — from $150 a month at a tractor factory to at least twice that after returning to Zhengzhou.

"I'll take as much overtime pay as I can," Chang said. "That's how you really make money."


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