My latest cover story on the future of Chinese labor involved unprecedented field research on my part during my time at China Economic Review. I know I often say that a story was a lot of fun to report, but this was definitively the most fun. (You can view the story here and a related sidebar about workplace strikes here.)

I needed to find examples of factories or workers confronted with the main trend of the story: new migrant workers who can move to the city for work are in increasingly short supply and therefore wages are rising rapidly. The trend in of itself has long been recognized, so the angle was to put it in concrete, human terms. Essentially, how will this trend shape the experiences of the average Chinese worker? How must workers and businesses adapt?

I traveled to an outer district of Shanghai, where I first conducted interviews at a state-owned rubber manufacturer. I did not know that the manufacturer would be state-owned before I went, as one of our interns had helped to arrange the visit using her uncle’s relationship with the factory head.

The interviews were strictly controlled with a middle manager putting a positive spin on all of his answers, sitting in on all of my interviews with workers and jumping in whenever they said something that didn’t fit with what he wanted written. He followed us around the factory and controlled what photos I could take.

By the end, I was rather dissatisfied and didn’t have what I needed for the story (although I would ultimately use salary information from two employees there). Since state-owned enterprises are supported by the government, they are insulated from market trends. I needed to find a worker at a private enterprise, which would be more vulnerable to rising wages.

So I decided to strike out on my own and walk around in the half-rural, half-urban Qingpu district. The factory manager did not want me to go on my own, insisting I accept a ride back to the city center. We argued for about half an hour: it’s too dangerous, you’ll never figure out how to get back. After repeated assurances that I would be fine, he left me to my own devices and drove away. The intern who had come with me left as well.

I walked alone down a street of hole-in-the-wall shops with factories interspersed, not seeing any workers. I walked until I hit a residential area before doubling back and turning down a crossroad. I walked for five minutes and was in the middle of farm fields. I made a big circle, hoping to get back to where I started, since there were factories there at least.

An hour of walking after I had left the company of the factory manager, I got lucky. There was a man, woman and child with what was unmistakably all of their belongings piled next to them on the side of an intersection. If there is a clearer sign of a migrant worker, I don’t know what it would be. At first I walked by them, as I tend to get nervous before cold approaching, doubly so after so long not finding the people I wanted. I walked past them and idled at the intersection before turning around to talk to the man.

What the father told me later became the lede for the story. It’s too bad that he’ll never see it. I asked him if he had an email, which seemed to amuse him as he quipped something about how mundane his leisure time is outside of work. I gave him my card, and he proceeded to fold it in on itself again and again and again.

I hopped the bus back to the city. I had an hour’s ride to the nearest subway station and then another hour’s ride home. The experience was worth it though. While I’m the millionth person to interview migrant workers, the experience of going out like that is the reason why I got to journalism and the reason I came to China.

To view the article in its full beauty in-print (we really have the design down this time around), you can go here.

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