Verso, £16.99 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

Scattered Sand: The story of China's rural migrants By Hsiao-Hung Pai

The painstaking journalism here offers remarkable insights into the plight of China's new citizens

"Rulers in China know about the power of those from the countryside," declares an orator close to the start of a book that takes the reader on an odyssey into a very 21st-century heart of darkness. In this meticulously researched portrait of rural migrants, the devastation is in the detail as the Taiwanese journalist Hsiao-Hung Pai tirelessly travels from bleakly beautiful desert landscapes to industrial hellholes to hear the voices of China's great anonymous workforce.

"China's history is all about how the peasantry has been burdened and oppressed," continues the orator, "and how each time they rose up to overthrow those in power. But then those new rulers would oppress the peasant masses again, until our anger could not be contained any longer and boiled over, once more, into a revolution."

The speaker is no powerful young firebrand but a frail white-haired old man called Xue, whom Pai has met with his son close to the labour market in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan. Xue has survived the murderously broken promises of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, only to experience disenfranchisement in old age both through his son's unemployment and the constantly looming threat of land seizure.

Though it's almost a game among economists to predict the year when China will leapfrog the US to become the world's largest economy, this year's slowing of growth has sharpened the focus on a wealth gap that has become a chasm. As Beijing prepares for its once-in-a-decade transfer of power this autumn, the Communist elite should be deeply concerned about how the multi-pronged exploitation of rural migrants could spark fresh social unrest.

It's tempting to think of Dickens's Hard Times as Pai goes from belching brick kilns to mining communities, from production-line workers' living quarters to derelict rural backwaters. But as Gerard Lemos, author of The End of the Chinese Dream, has commented, to compare China's industrial revolution with 19th-century Britain is banal – it's the uniqueness of what's happening here that should be the starting point for analysis.

Through painstaking journalism, Pai breaks down the largest human migration in history – with an estimated 200 million peasants involved –into a multiplicity of personal stories. Each is put into context with different episodes in Chinese politics. It's not just the wide range of people she accesses, but the depth of the conversations that marks this out from other works – and she puts herself in danger on more than one occasion.

For instance, when she visits a brick kiln in the Shandong province, she is accompanied by "Mr Qi", a maintenance worker who suddenly reveals he's going to demand the factory pays him six months' worth of owed wages. "Would the boss yield to our collective pressure and release the money?" she asks herself. "Or would he turn nasty and hire thugs to get rid of us – as in the stories I had heard so many times before?" In the event they are not beaten up, but nor does Qi get his money.

China's rural workers are skewered on so many levels, it's depressingly easy to understand those who urge their children to get into other countries by posing as orphans. Yet as Pai has already proved – with her first book, about Chinese labour in Britain, Chinese Whispers – life is unlikely to be easier elsewhere. Neither communism nor Deng-pioneered capitalism has helped them, and with Western companies complicit in squeezing the minimally-paid minions, the future – despite a few successful protests – looks forlorn. By far the worst story is of the peasants who contracted Aids through selling blood for money, but sadly this is just one example of their ruthless exploitation by a vampiric world.

Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May


Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama


Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before