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They made 'Made in China'

Updated: 2014-08-01 07:27
By Li Wenfang ( China Daily Africa)

Guangzhou seeks to elevate its Museum of Migrant Workers to the national level

A Guangzhou museum that is dedicated to the millions of migrant workers whose dedication and brawn changed the face of China may become a national-level facility.

Plans call for expansion of the Museum of Migrant Workers, the country's only such center built by a city government.

 They made 'Made in China'

Replica of factory floor where migrants used to work. Zou Zhongpin / China Daily

 They made 'Made in China'

Display shows how a migrant worker would call home after arriving at the Guangzhou train station.

Provincial authorities have come to a consensus on upgrading it into a national museum, says Feng Haibo, deputy curator, adding that the scope of the exhibition would be revised and more exhibits included reflecting a national spirit.

Making it a national museum would require certification by the central government and likely would come with some national funding.

Guangzhou, capital of South China's Guangdong province, often called the workshop of the world, is one of the areas that attracted millions of workers from other parts of China early in the process of reform and opening-up some three decades ago.

The exhibition starts with a statue of a few migrant workers waiting for a train to Guangzhou at a station in Henan province in Central China, followed by reproductions of shoe and garment production lines in the 1980s.

The brainchild of Wang Yang, former Party chief of Guangdong province and built with funds from Guangzhou's city government, the museum is located in a former village-run industrial park launched in the 1980s in Baiyun district to house export-oriented factories. The museum opened in September 2012.

"The appearance of migrant workers has been deeply changing the track of the economic and social transitions of our country," a plaque at the start of the exhibition says. "They have held up 'Made in China' with their wisdom and strength and helped push forward the industrialization process.

"They have found their places in modern cities with perseverance and efforts, accelerating urbanization."

Li Weimin, a retiree in Guangzhou who has visited the museum twice, says it reminds city dwellers of those who developed and built large parts of the country. But to his regret, he says, most of his friends do not know about the museum.

However, Li's friends, like almost all Chinese, are aware of the sheer size of the farmer-turned-migrant worker population, which reached 263 million in 2012, nearly 20 percent of whom worked in Guangdong. Besides factories, they work in construction, restaurants and many other areas where inexpensive labor is needed.

They comprise a key part in the world's largest annual human migration during the Spring Festival rush, traveling from their workplaces in coastal regions to inland hometowns.

Key phases of the history of migrant workers are illustrated in the museum. The first decade, starting in 1979, saw the appearance of migrant workers as a result of rural reforms, thriving township businesses started by rural collectives or farmers in coastal regions, and relaxed migration policies.

The second phase was a boom in the cross-provincial migrant worker population following the downturn of township enterprises, with Guangdong recording a few million migrant workers after the Spring Festival in 1989.

The next decade saw laws and practices adopted to safeguard the rights and interests of migrant workers. Starting around 2010, a younger generation of migrant workers has arisen with a greater desire than their parents to make their homes in the cities where they work.

The exhibition ends with reproductions of a workers' dining hall and dormitories.

Apart from the items used in work and daily life, exhibits also include letters expressing a longing for loved ones far away and various forms of permits migrant workers needed to stay in a city.

Guo Mingyuan, a migrant worker, wrote in visitors' book: "I am deeply touched walking from the first floor to the fourth floor. I came to Guangdong to work in 1992. Things that happened in the past 20 years all came back to my mind. There was pain, tears and laughter. The museum recorded the hard work the few generations of migrant workers have done for the development of Guangdong so that the younger generations can get a feeling for the work and life of their parents."

Shortly after the opening of the museum, a college student in Guangzhou presented a letter to the city government, questioning a lack of exhibits reflecting the low status and difficulties experienced by migrant workers.

Feng, the deputy curator, replied that items should be included if they reflect the history in an objective way but those merely for venting anger are not necessary.

The story of migrant workers is still taking place and experts hold different views as to how to reflect their history, he says.

Feng described the museum as a necessary monument for millions of people who have made contributions to society in relative obscurity.

The purpose of having the museum, he says, is to reflect the dignity and glory of the migrant population, for local people to become more understanding and tolerant, and for decisionmakers to keep in mind the need for humane treatment and care for this group of people.

Such a museum allows the public to learn the hardships migrant workers have undergone, says Zheng Guanghuai, an associate professor with the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences of Nanjing University, who was part of the dialogue that led up to building the museum.

The awareness of the government indicates the respect for and recognition of migrant workers, he says.

The museum is operated by the Baiyun district government, where the museum is located, and Guangdong-based Times Property, which developed Guangzhou Imprint Park around the museum. The park was built at the site of the former industrial park and besides the museum, also includes galleries and innovative companies.

Zheng expressed hopes that the museum will be run by a non-governmental party, saying the government may not be fully willing to exhibit the true life of migrant workers.

He Baoqi contributed to this story.


(China Daily Africa Weekly 08/01/2014 page26)