Stuck in Customs

A Divided Town

Yedan Li | 06 June 2013

If China is the world’s factory, then Qingyang town represents the forefront of production.

A Glimpse Into Life Stories in the World’s Factory - Part 1

For ethical reasons relating to the author’s ongoing research, the names of the town and the people in this article are all fictitious.

If China is the world’s factory, then Qingyang town represents the forefront of production. The town is located in Pearl River Delta, the heart of coastal Guangdong province. As a town that features manufacturing industry, Qingyang Town is flooded with 2 million emigrant workers, while the registered permanent residents are fewer than 0.4 million.

Living in the same town, the locals and the emigrant workers are both intertwined and detached. The two groups are brought together by the giant factories and the exporting manufactory processing, and their interests are jointly influenced by economic prosperity: locals want business and emigrant workers want jobs. However, since the two groups hold different social status in Qingyang Town, it is difficult to remove the estrangement. Labor disputes, especially collective ones, are somewhat related to this multiple dimensional background.

Qingyang Town seems to be divided by invisible hands: in the heart of downtown, 3 five-star hotels, luxurious cars on the streets, magnificent skyscrapers, shopping malls and hotels put it in the same league as modern Chinese cities. In this area of the city live locals, foreign investors, and exclusive white collar workers. A few hundred meters away from downtown live the “new Qingyang Towners”. It is no different than the underdeveloped small towns in China: disordered dirty shops, outdated internet bars, cheap clothing stores, pedlars who speak divergent dialects and workers with enormous ID badges. Shops bearing the name “Armami” demonstrate the dreams and reality of the people that live here. This article will portray the lives of the people that are under the same giant factory roof of Qingyang Town.


In Qingyang Town, “being a local” somewhat represents a rich and comfortable life. Even if the factories are operating below the standards of foreign investors, those investors need Chinese lands and workers. To meet their needs, locals centralized originally dispersed lands from villagers, and built factories and workshops on them. With those facilities, they received stable income from renting. Since then, the rapid development of Chinese manufacturing industry has brought the locals immense revenues.

A 19 year-old local girl, Wang, tells her story. Her parents are both from Qingyang Town, but from different villages. Like local people, her parents run a business together, the whole family live in a four-storey villa, and own 3 fancy cars. Life has changed dramatically in the last 20 years: her elder brother used to catch frogs in the field when he was young, but after she was born “life began to be better. Farms rapidly disappeared, but the factories were constructed.” As a colleague student who studies in Guangzhou, like most local Qingyang Town girls, she never thought about leaving Qingyang Town or doing a master degree. For her and her family, doing business is THE right way.

Indeed, many local people started their business with the bonus from renting their farmlands. With 20 years’ development, those renting interests still exist, but have been changed into another form. Many years ago, the unit of shared interest was the “village member”, so girls who married a boy from another village were excluded from the group. Therefore, at that time, few local girls wanted to marry outside the village. Nevertheless, nowadays, as the organization has been transformed into a corporation, the villagers have gradually turned into shareholders, and enjoy dividend payments each year. Even if the shareholder has moved out or married out, as long as the name stays, they are paid the dividend.

However, the dividend payment seems to be a sensitive, even forbidden, topic among the locals. They don’t like to discuss it with outsiders. Nobody knows the exact amount a local family gets from it. Even if most villagers’ incomes do not depend on the dividend, this form of income is rooted in and deeply affects the local economy, life and values. The local community is close-knit. They talk in local dialect, follow hidden and fixed rules (for example, people from village A and village B cannot be married), and have family breakfast with whole family on Saturday and Sunday. It is a popular idea that education is of no use, and girls should marry before 25; the places north of Guangdong are cold; Chongqing and Shandong are “similar”. On the one hand, they value the family very much, on the other hand, they hold a bewildering attitude towards emigrants: they act as if the emigrant workers, who outnumber them, are living in the same city but in another dimension. They feel hesitant to welcome them, or learn about them. Emigrants are still migratory, but the lands belong to the locals. This can clearly be seem in the attitude that they show when dealing with the emigrant workers: the workers are somewhat troublemakers.

Indeed, the above somehow delineates a stereotype of locals. Admittedly, there are young people who study outside the town try to escape from this loop: they resist and fight against this mindset. Besides, the community government tries to make the locals open their minds by encouraging them to do same jobs as the emigrants. But sadly, changes cannot happen in one day. This somewhat makes the rebellion into a effort in vain. Long process as it is, the locals might still live on this side of the town, adhering to their embedded visuals of Qingyang Town that is actually no longer the same.

In my next two blogs, I will write about the life of the emigrant workers, and the collective disputes that come out of the conflict between them and the locals. 

Photo credit main picture: Stuck in Customs

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Yedan Li

Yedan Li, LL.M., LL.B. is a PhD researcher at the University of Amsterdam, faculty of law.

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