A villager from western China, Qi Xuewu headed east in search of a better life, joining 140 million ambitious migrant workers.
Peter Ford/The Christian Science Monitor
– It is hard to imagine Qi Xuewu, with his flowing locks, immaculately pleated shirt front, pinstripe trousers, and patent leather loafers, as a cotton farmer.
Mr. Qi could not imagine himself as a cotton farmer either. After laboring for only 18 months in his father's fields near China's border with Kazakhstan he packed his bags in 1999 and like 140 million other migrant workers, set off in search of a better life.
Qi, however, had no intention of following his fellow villagers who had "gone out" to construction sites and sweatshops on China's booming east coast. Setting his sights higher, he went to hairdressing school, which he saw as a passport to freedom.
"I knew that if I learned to become a really good stylist I could go anywhere in China with my scissors, and nobody could stop me," he says, tossing his fashionably cut hair out of his eyes.
It worked. Today, after snipping and blow-drying his way up through a series of less classy joints, 29-year-old Qi works at one of the most upscale hair salons in Shenzhen, China's fastest growing city and a showcase of the "reform and opening" policy.
It is a town built by and for migrant workers, who make up more than 95 percent of its 11 million population. They have flooded into Shenzhen and to cities like it from China's still-impoverished countryside in search of two things: work and money.
Since peasants were first permitted to leave their villages in 1978, they have found them in the hundreds of thousands of factories that have fed China's roaring export boom. Some have stayed for a year or so, others have put up with mind-numbingly repetitive work, long hours, cramped dormitories, and sketchy employment contracts for more than a decade to send money home or save it to start their own businesses.
Qi is different. It was ambition, more than abject poverty, which drove him from his native village. "I couldn't do nothing," he says. "My parents just lived to survive. My generation can think bigger thoughts, and I am lucky to have been born at this special time."