Last week as part of the Hong Kong International Literary Festival I went to see not only China correspondent Jonathan Watts and author Peter Hessler, but also Hessler's wife and former China correspondent for the Wall Street Journal Leslie Chang.
She wrote a book a few years ago called Factory Girls and she is still quoted widely as an expert on migrant workers.
In the non-fiction book she follows two women in Dongguan near Hong Kong as they try to find their way in the world. One gives Chang access to her diary and in it she writes down her dreams and rules to herself, from how to study hard to how to wear eyeshadow.
Many girls leave their villages when they are 15 or 16 years old, working 14-hour days and getting 100RMB ($15.20) a month. They have to share a room with strangers, hope they won't get cheated and in some cases are keen to learn Cantonese in hopes of getting a better job in southern China.
There are some 150 million migrant workers, Chang says, making their move to the cities the largest migration in human history.
For the young women, moving to the city and getting a job is liberation for them. They are not sheltered in the village or coddled by their parents. They can buy whatever clothes they want, wear makeup, style their hair, get a mobile phone. For them this is individualism.
Chang recalls meeting one of the women in her book every month or so, and each time they met, the young woman would have a different hairstyle, or different make up, different clothes or accessories. It was as if she was trying to find her own identity, Chang observes.
What was also interesting was that with all these young people in the cities, they did not have parents or relatives helping them find their mate. Instead they had to try to figure out the whole dating process themselves. Sometimes this led to quickie marriages, sometimes casual sex. All this is new for China on a large scale.
Some people are more ambitious than others. Hoping to climb up the ladder faster, Chang recalls one of the main characters in her book talks her way into a clerk job and instantly gets 300RMB a month, triple her original salary. From there she had the confidence to move into all kinds of work, including various sales positions in pyramid schemes.
Some one-third of migrants in Shenzhen are willing to take night classes with their own money in order to move up. That is ambition. Whether the education is enough to give them a leg up is another matter, but it seems that it's also about confidence and being able to talk one's way into a job that helps too.
Chang observed more women than men seemed more keen on bettering themselves and she attributes it to the girls having less education to start with so they feel like they have to do more to catch up.
Also the clock is ticking -- most factories only want to hire people between the ages of 18 and 25. Factory bosses assume women by the age of 25 will get married and have a child, but not all women are married by then, which is why some are keen to get more education so they can get better jobs and stay longer in the workforce if they don't find Mr Right.
Chang also talked about following one of the women back to her hometown for Spring Festival. After the long journey home by train and then several buses they got back to a small brick house and the girl chastised her parents for the run-down kitchen looking so dirty and didn't they use garbage cans to dispose of their trash?
This shocked Chang, who thought the girl would return home to be an obedient daughter; but instead now that she was the breadwinner in the family, she felt she had a say in how the household was run, and also showing off her superior knowledge she picked up in the city.
These young migrants aren't going to return to the villages once their parents pass away. They are going to stay in the cities because they don't even know how to farm and seeing their parents toil in the fields is not the fate they want. All they know is factory life and yearn to be where the action is.
The government will eventually have to give in and give these people hukou or household registration in the city so that they too can get social benefits like education and health care. These migrants are contributing to the local economy, right? The least the government can do is allow them and their children to feel more welcome in the cities.
After all the government expects more people to live in urban areas so why not make more provisions for them so they can live a more equal life as those with hukou. That's all they want really. Why treat those who have build China's economy to what it is now like second-class citizens?