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China's peasants opt for urban grindstone

China's 80 to 110 million migrants brave tough factory conditions for a once in a lifetime shot at leaving the farm.

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Liu Wang is a migrant worker who just bought her brother his first suit. She's elated, but won't show it.

Like most laborers in this east coast shoe factory town, Liu will go back to her village for spring festival. The holiday, which started Thursday, is a time when migrant sons and daughters bring home gifts that show their hard work and regard for the family. Liu thought about the suit all week, and spent this afternoon on the assembly line debating which color her 14-year old brother would like. She ended up buying wide-pinstripes in gray, the latest fashion in this Jinjiang neighborhood called Yang Dai.

The suit was a good buy, bargained down to $16. It's a third of Liu's monthly salary. In Liu's village it is nearly a matter of public record what gifts and what sums of money arrive from the wealthy east this time of year, and a nice bounty gives the family "face."

Outside the brightly lit clothing shop it is getting dark, and energy levels are rising. Life in migrant-majority Yang Dai is lived in a frenzy of small dramas, right on the street, and the sounds of snooker and stir- frying are heard every few feet.

But this isn't the noisy energy of quitting time. It's just dinner time. Most of the 17- to 30-year-olds who gather at phone shops, or rush around the block with a bowl of noodles in hand, will shortly re-don their uniforms and work four more hours in the factory. They start at 8:30 a.m. and end at midnight. What's more, they largely prefer this life to the life back on the farm. Most have never seen so much money.

Outside China the fabled rise of the economy here evokes images of neon skylines or streets crowded with shiny black luxury cars. Yet the core of China's growth are low cost products made by a largely migrant labor class, peasants, from the heartland.

The muscle of China's economy

The migrants, estimated at between 80 and 110 million, are the muscle of the economy. They can be seen any day in east coast cities, walking along highways, squatting in construction crews, arriving from interior villages no one has heard of.


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