The April 25 clothing factory fire in Jiugong, in the south of Beijing, made the New York Times, but there wasn’t much sense of the people behind the clothing industry. Last Week, Southern Weekly ran a profile of a former migrant worker and Jiugong factory boss named Li Zuming.
Li Zuming arrived in Beijing from Sichuan in 1990, aged 21. He first worked selling buttons and zippers in a central Beijing hutong, before getting together with two partners and investing over 2 million yuan to open a clothing factory, which could earn 300,000 a month. But financial difficulties ensued after one his partners started sleeping with two female accountants, so Li teamed up with a local Jiugong resident to start a new factory, and this required taking the local police out to karaoke, restaurants, and saunas. The usual deal was that the police would contact him, saying that they wanted to take him out and introduce him to ‘a friend’. Li would inevitably end up picking up the bill at these meetings, and he spent more than 300,000 yuan entertaining local police and officials in this way in 2001.
Around 300 other bosses from Sichuan opened clothing factories in Jiugong, amounting to a near monopoly of the local clothing industry. But relations between the bosses were good, since they were careful not to step on each others business territory. The bosses would eat together almost every week, and if one of the party was celebrating a birthday, these restaurant trips would extend to card playing and conversation back at one of the bosses homes. At birthdays, red envelopes worth between 100 and 1000 RMB were exchanged, meaning Li could earn 20,000 RMB on a good birthday. For the spring festival, the bosses would drive back to their hometowns together.
Sichuanese migrants were originally just workers in Beijing, but it wasn’t long before the Sichuanese were bosses themselves. By this last decade, a regional hierarchy emerged in Jiugong. Chongqing migrants opened restaurants, Northeasterners ran the local mafia, people from Henan province were just poor. In Jiugong, more than 50 percent of the migrants were classed as ‘half illiterate’ or had only attended elementary school. One time when Li was smoking a pack of 5 RMB Honghe cigarettes, he noticed a migrant worker looking at him envyingly. ‘Brother’, the migrant said to Li, ‘that’s enough to keep us going for a month back at home’.
Despite the relative wealth the capital, the pool of migrant workers in Beijing has shrunk. In 2000, according to Li, if you offered 300 yuan a month plus food and lodging, workers would be ‘knocking down your door’. Migrants were so desperate to keep their jobs that ‘if you didn’t listen to the boss, he’d kick you so hard you didn’t dare to fart’. These days, factories have trouble finding workers: ‘whoever can find staff, that’s a boss’, according to Li. And the new generation of post-90s migrants have a different attitude to work. Li finds himself struggling to make himself heard over his young cohort, who are used to listening to music on headphones during work hours. Although settled in Beijing, with a son developing a Beijing accent at a local kindergarten, Li is considering returning to his hometown to open a clothes factory. ‘Every time i go back the local officials call me in to discuss the idea’, he says.
thanks to jiugong resident jeremy o’sullivan for the photo.