Around 5 a.m. each day, the quiet streets of Sanhe burst to life as the young migrants sleeping outside the labor market awaken to a quick calculation: Do they have enough cash to make it through the day? If they do, they’ll roll over and slip back into sleep. If they don’t, they’ll rush off to the market in search of work, preferably as couriers, construction workers, or security guards. The contracts are entirely verbal and paid out at the end of the day. The newly flush workers are free to roam for a few days — at least until their money runs out and the cycle begins anew.
The lives of young migrants to Sanhe, located in the southern megacity of Shenzhen, first attracted public attention around three years ago. Contrary to the conventional image of migrant workers as dreary automatons trapped on factory lines, the so-called Sanhe youth have little interest in formal work. Accustomed to low-quality and low-cost living, their mantra is simple: “Work for a day, party for three.” The most extreme among them, known for their abilities to tolerate near-absolute poverty, are referred as “Sanhe legends.”
By turns mocked and lauded, looked down upon and romanticized, the Sanhe legends are heroes of a unique subculture. Yet their popular image is symptomatic of a broader misunderstanding. Based on fieldwork my grad student Lin Kaixuan and I conducted in 2018, these youngsters don’t actually like their extremely unstable working conditions; rather, the lifestyle is thrust upon them by forces they struggle to escape. And while casual day labor is enough to meet their most basic necessities, it also locks them out of trust relationships and long-term cooperative networks, preventing them from properly integrating into the city.
After the advent of “reform and opening-up” in the late 1970s, millions of migrants from China’s interior poured into coastal cities in search of work in booming factory towns. Arguably nowhere benefitted more from this development than Shenzhen, which grew into one of the world’s largest manufacturing hubs. Factory workers toiled for long hours, often living and working in close proximity as their employers kept tight control over their personal time.
However, recent years have seen industries automate or move inland in search of cheap labor. Those still hiring along the coast, meanwhile, are struggling to connect with the high expectations of a new generation of workers, including air-conditioned dormitories and Wi-Fi, to say nothing of this cohort’s individualism and often adversarial attitudes.
On the ground in Shenzhen, many Sanhe youth complained to us about the unreasonable management and working conditions of factory life. They felt deprived, believing new technologies are welding them to the bottom rung of society, while a lack of education and work skills have stripped them of the capital needed to achieve upward mobility. A recurring theme in our interviews was an aversion to exploitation, to being nickel-and-dimed by their bosses, and to facing discrimination — that is, the results of 40 years of dehumanizing discourse around migrant laborers.
Refusing to become easily replaceable components, Sanhe youth want to find a job that can live up to their ideals. Failing that, they opt “to sit, eat, and wait for death.”
A young migrant worker passes out in his bed after drinking all night in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, May 10, 2017. Chen Jin for Sixth Tone
That doesn’t mean they reject Shenzhen. The Sanhe youth we spoke with have a strong desire to stay in the city and little interest in returning to their hometowns, where they’re fettered by traditional values and ways of life. Yet integration isn’t easy. They are faced with the prospect of long-term unemployment in the city due to a lack of skills and social connections, as well as exclusion and isolation from mainstream society. Unwilling to return home and yet unable to settle down, Sanhe youth occupy the fringes of the urban landscape, subsisting through a series of casual day jobs.
To be clear, this is not a new employment model, nor is it part of the freelance or tech-centered gig economy. Sanhe day jobs tend to be low-skilled, low-tech, and low-efficiency, such as working construction or security. They’re a simple exchange of time for economic benefits.
In the absence of fixed labor relations, however, workers’ lives are filled with uncertainty. When the demand for workers drops, job opportunities dry up and salaries fall, meaning that even if one can find work, it’s not necessarily worthwhile. This change directly impacts the lives of Sanhe youth, including by dictating the where they can sleep each night: in a bed, at an internet café, or by the roadside.
The plight of Sanhe youth reminds us to consider the disjunction between economics, land, and demography in China’s urbanization process. Rapid economic growth and the expansion of cities have not resulted in correspondingly large numbers of people automatically becoming “citizens” of those cities, thanks in large part to restrictive population policies and high entry thresholds.
In the rural parts of central and western China, where most migrants hail from, educational resources are insufficient to help residents clear these hurdles. Many Sanhe youth grew up as “left-behind children,” their parents employed as migrant workers away from home. Through the internet and cellphones, they have been exposed to a more diverse and individualistic urban culture, feel less wed to the idea of getting married and starting a family, and are more distasteful of the monotonous and humdrum work of traditional manufacturing — but have no means of actualizing these ideals.
Given the uncertainty that comes with working day jobs, some observers have wondered why Sanhe youth don’t simply change their lifestyles. However, as the economists Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo argue in their well-known book on poverty, “Poor Economics,” those in poverty “often behave as if they think that any change that is significant enough to be worth sacrificing for will simply take too long,” given the pressing problems they face.
Indeed, putting aside the question of whether Sanhe youth even want to make the necessary changes to improve their living conditions, it’s unclear whether they actually have the ability to do so. After a long time working informally and living on the margins of society, some Sanhe youth have lost their most basic possessions: their ID cards. This makes it difficult for them to secure work or even a place to stay, making changing their lives or moving up the social ladder look even more like a pipe dream.
Compared with solving the current plight of Sanhe youth, the more pressing goal facing Chinese society is keeping more young people born in the countryside from becoming like them. That means cities must alter their discriminatory policies against migrants. And at the national level, it’s vital to narrow the gaps between urban and rural development so young people born in central and western China can enjoy the benefits of a better education. Only then can they avoid becoming the next victims of the country’s urbanization.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhang Zeqin.
(Header image: Young migrant workers congregate at the Haixinxin Talent Markets in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, April 16, 2017. Chen Jin for Sixth Tone)