Vietnamese workers in China

July 4, 2010

Since joining the Minjian International mailing list, I have been receiving all sorts of interesting articles. List members have, for instance, forwarded several articles on illegal Vietnamese workers in China. Fellow MqVU member Zhang Juan and Caroline Grillot are both writing their dissertations on the Vietnam-China border, but there they only encountered Vietnamese prostitutes and petty traders. Now apparently there is a new flow of Vietnamese workers alleviating the shortage of Chinese migrant workers in the factories of Guangdong. Or seeing it in another way, undercutting domestic wages at a time of widespread labour protests and after a series of suicides of Chinese migrant workers in the province. To my knowledge this is the first instance of cheaper foreign factory labour in China, occurring at a time when Chinese workers continue to play that same role in many countries, and when the growing numbers of Chinese workers on infrastructure projects in Vietnam have also been getting increasing attention.

The latest article, from yesterday’s issue of the Canton newspaper 羊城晚报, reports the deportation of 15 “三非”(“three-illegal,”  referring to illegal entry, illegal residence and illegal employment) Vietnamese, eight men and seven women, who have worked  since the beginning of the year in a factory in Zhongshan, Guangdong. The police was tipped off by “the masses” (“concerned citizens,” as they would say in Arizona). Local police told the paper that such cases were increasingly common: in the first half of the year, 154 arrests of illegally employed foreigners have been made in Guangdong, up from 180 in the whole of last year.

(An earlier article reported that Vietnamese workers have been arrested in factories as far from the border as Fujian, Jiangxi, and Zhejiang, on construction sites in Guangxi and Sichuan, restaurants and shops in Guangdong and Hainan, and on the sugar cane plantations of Guangxi. Most workers are arrested on buses trying to get from the Guangxi-Vietnam border to inland cities, but some go to the mainland from Macau after the expiration of their labour contracts there. The majority of the workers are young women, inlcuding one who was just 16 when she went to Hainan to work at a shop selling cellphones. Recruiters charged with “organizing others to cross the border illegally” [组织他人非法过境] have received very light sentences by Chinese standards — deportation, a fine, or reduction of the duration of permitted stay in China, as compared to a recent case of 14 years in prison for stealing 53 sheep — suggesting that “human smuggling” continues to be seen in China as an administrative infraction rather than as organised crime, as it is in the West. On the other hand, China does not recognise the authority of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, so that being recognised as a refugee by UNHCR does not prevent deportation.)

A 20-year-old Vietnamese woman told the paper that she had paid 500 yuan to a man who take her across the border. After the Spring Festival, she was hired by the factory, which had difficulties finding workers to replace Chinese migrant workers who went home for the holiday. The factory had first hired two Vietnamese workers, one of whom, who spoke some Chinese, acted as the recruiter for the rest. She made up to 1,400 yuan per month in the factory and since the factory provided lodging and meals she was able to send money home. (Other articles suggest that wages around  800-900 yuan are more typical, and that while such wages are half of what a Chinese worker asks for they are double of what a similar job earns in Vietnam.) According to a Chinese manager, Vietnamese workers are “hard-working, obedient and can withstand hardship” (能吃苦) — exactly the same terms in which Chinese migrant workers abroad describe themselves. Since their arrest, the factory has been unable to replace them. Employers of illegal workers can be fined 5,000 to 50,000 yuan, but this does not prove an effective deterrent.

Readers’ comments on the article suggest that some see it as a cautionary tale to Chinese workers: you should consider yourself happy to earn as much as you do. Others oppose the deportation and express sympathy for the workers. Another comment decries the regime that keeps wages low and yet deports foreign workers — “the worst is that you can’t change it.” Many comments curse the “northerners” 北人, i.e. the Chinese migrant workers, rather than at the Vietnamese; two suggest that Vietnamese are at least better than Africans who “steal and rob”; several comment that Vietnamese are indeed very hard workers and that Vietnam is developing much faster than Chinese people think. And finally some demand stricter measures to keep foreign workers out when many Chinese are unemployed. So there is the full range of opinions, but without the dominance of xenophobia that such topics tend to unleash on European online forums.

In the earlier, more analytical article on the subject, the Vietnamese government was described as promoting the export of labour force as a way of alleviating unemployment, generating remittances, and training workers, and therefore closing its eyes to the illegal border-crossings of Vietnamese workers in Guangxi. (According to Zhang Juan’s research, local Chinese authorities in Yunnan also close their eyes to such crossings by Chinese citizens, considering that their trade activities are a major source of income.) On the other hand, the article reports on the discontent with Chinese construction companies bringing their own workers. As elsewhere, Chinese managers are quoted as saying that Vietnamese workers are “lazier” than Chinese (“it takes three to five Vietnamese do the job of one Chinese”) — which is, the article notes, ironic since Vietnamese workers are in demand in China for their industriousness. Unlike in Africa, but like elsewhere in Southeast Asia, Chinese workers are substantially more expensive than locals: according to a manager from 中国十四冶建集团, a Chinese company specialised in building factories with several projects in Vietnam, skilled Chinese workers receive 5,000 yuan as compared to the 1,000-2,000 yuan made by a local worker. The party secretary of this company therefore suggests that China and Vietnam should come to an agreement that will permit certain numbers of workers from both sides work legally in the other country. “China has already benefited from [labour export as a way of learning advanced skills], now it can offer similar help to developing countries in Southeast Asia.” Yet it seems that she envisages Vietnamese workers taking very low-skilled jobs, such as on the Guangxi sugar cane plantations, which are, according to her, tens of thousands of farmhands short


Ming Pao Weekly cover story “Chinese in Africa, Africans in China”

March 14, 2010

Ming Pao used to be known as one of the more independent (i.e. non-Peking-aligned) major Chinese-language newspapers in Hong Kong. Perhaps I have missed something, or maybe it’s just Ming Pao Weekly that is no longer blocked in the mainland, but this report is no different from the mainline of mainland journalism on the topic: anticolonial solidarity, pioneering Chinese entrepreneurs, hard-working and idealistic Chinese engineers, lagging-behind Africans, plus some “human interest.” There is unabashed celebration of the “new era” in Africa ushered in by the Chinese who are “changing the face” of the continent, turning it into a “New West,” and leaving the old colonialists, who had already given up on Africa, scramble to regain their positions (Westerners do not appear in the story as persons). There is a passage — meant to convey admiration for progress – on a project at the Bui Dam that Chinese workers completed in a year instead of three, “turning jungle into construction site and chasing away monkeys and hippos. … Thousands, tens of thousands of Chinese workers have come to Africa, and on each face a story of self-confidence is written.” Both the writing and the analysis are far poorer than one finds in top mainland publications such as Southern Weekend.

The author followed Ghanaian traders from Canton to Accra, where he visited a large Chinese consumer-goods market and a lot of Chinese shops and restaurants — a scene reminiscent of Eastern Europe but also, for him, of the “African neighbourhood” in Canton. He also interviewed  Chinese engineers and construction workers from Hunan and Sichuan, restaurant owners from Guangdong, and a pastor from Hong Kong. The article implies that resentment against the number of Chinese workers is unreasonable: a Hunanese engineer tells the reporter that Chinese workers are three times as efficient as Africans, while conflicts are described as blown out of proportion by an unfriendly African press. In any case, the conflicts he mentions are not about working conditions or jobs: one incident involved a child fathered by a Chinese worker in a Ghanaian village, causing the local chief to prohibit local girls to go near Chinese workers; another was about dragnet fishing by Chinese fishermen leading to the depletion of fish. Still, the author notes that the Chinese government has “realised the need for a new image,” so companies are hiring more and more Africans for “physical labour and low-level technical tasks.” For example, a Chinese company that won a tender to build a road in Achimota employs 180 locals and only 24 Chinese.

A project manager at the Bui Dam told the reporter that profit was not the most important consideration for their project; rather, politics and diplomacy were — words often heard from managers of infrastructure projects.

The most interesting stories are those of entrepreneurs. One, Zou Xiaohua, has come to Africa after trying his luck in (probably Eastern or Southern) Europe; he found that “Europeans buy little and have high expectations, so that a little problem can lead to merchandise being mercilessly returned.” Africans, in contrast, like to buy new things often and want them cheap even if they break down soon, so that a person might buy two cellphones a year.

Descriptions of Africans as unpunctual, lazy, larcenous, and disgusting (eating fresh monkey faeces) are reproduced without analytical distance. These are combined with the imagery of African traders in Canton, who — hearing of the arrival of a reporter from Hong Kong, whom they say they trust not to be under government control — implore him to help them get visa extensions and complain about their lives in illegality. This is the only place in the article where a discursive distance is created between the reporter’s Hong Kong identity and that of “the Chinese,” but it is created by the Africans rather than the reporter himself. Images of Chinese workers and traders, which conform to the “new migrant” , even if the article ends with the soothing pictures of a happy Chinese-African couple.


Nigerians clash with police in Canton

July 17, 2009

On this blog we tend to write about the link between Chinese migration and development projects, but there is also migration from poorer countries to China: brides from North Korea, Vietnam, and Burma, entertainers and businessmen from Central Asia, and traders from Africa. This is an underresearched subject, but there are at least two ongoing research projects on the African trading community in China: by Barry Sautman and Yan Hairong in Hong Kong, and by Michal Lyons and Alison Brown in England.

A few days ago, Chinese media reported that about 300 Africans clashed with police at a police station in Canton. They were protesting the restrictions police sweeps on foreigners ahead of the 1 October anniversary celebrations of the 60s anniversary of the founding of the PRC, which combined with visa restrictions introduced ahead of the Olympics (resulting in African citizens being unable to get PRC visas in Hong Kong) meant that many traders became not only illegal migrants but also subject to deportation. In particular, the demonstrators were incensed about the death of a Nigerian, described as an illegal money changer, who fell from a building while trying to escape a police raid. According to the report, authorities in Canton are concerned because the man was a Muslim, and his death came just after the clashes between Uyghurs and Hans in Urumqi (also reportedly triggered by the death of two Uyghur Muslims in a fight in Guangdong).

There are several remarkable aspects about this report. First, the fact that it was allowed to appear: this probably reflects growing government confidence that readers would side with the police against ethnic groups they see as troublemakers (Tibetans, Uyghurs, Africans).

Second, even though the tightening of checks on foreigners ahead of the celebrations seems appeared to target political dissenters (say, human rights of Falungong activists), it was in fact used for an entirely different purpose, one that was much more in line with the practices of Western states. The report alleged that although officially Canton has 20 thousand African (mostly Nigerian, Ghanaian, Cameroonian and Liberian) residents, unofficial estimates are as high as 200 thousand, the population grows by 30-40% every year, and the two trading centers where Africans concentrated have been identified by police as areas of drug dealing. Such reports associating Africans with crime and illegal immigration are very similar to the portrayal of Chinese traders in Eastern European and African media, and having to hide from police sweeps is a familiar experience for businesspeople in Eastern Europe’s Chinese markets. In other words, what first appeared to be a party-state crackdown on dissent turned out to be more a “security” measure that victimizes economically or culturally undesirable foreigners from poor countries and makes China look more, rather than less, like the West.

Third, the fear that the conflict may escalate because the victim was Muslim is again similar to paranoid reactions of Western governments, but also shows sensitivity to the possible repercussions of the incident for China in Muslim countries. Indeed, as our Jakarta correspondent Johanes Herlijanto reports, while China has gone a long way bolstering its image as a source of Islam-friendly modernization in Indonesia, demonstrations were planned in front of the Chinese embassy today to protest the government’s treatment of Uyghurs. (They were cancelled after the firebombing of the Ritz-Carlton and the Marriott this morning.)

Clashes with Africans are not an entirely new phenomenon in China. In 1989, Chinese students in Nanjing demonstrated in protest against Africans students’ alleged harassment of Chinese girls in an incident that, according to some, was one of the triggers of the protests that later went down in history as the democracy movement.