Around the Chinese New Year period, millions of Chinese migrant workers return home from jobs in China’s major cities to their rural villages to visit their families. China’s urban centers and factory towns rely on migrant workers from provinces like Guizhou: places that are still relatively underdeveloped, despite the massive growth seen on China’s coasts. The fact that, this year, many migrants likely can’t return home due to the COVID-19 pandemic is a reminder of the instability that defines much of their lives.
The Myth of Chinese Capitalism: The Worker, the Factory, and the Future of the World by Dexter Roberts studies the lives of China’s migrant workers, based on Roberts’ twenty years of reporting from the country since it joined the World Trade Organization in 2001. The book combines big-picture analysis with on-the-ground reporting, using the story of the Mo family to reveal the underlying problems in China’s economic model. The book was named one of the Economist’s “Best Books of 2020”.
In this interview, Dexter and I talk about China’s migrant workers and how their struggles reveal the potential instabilities in China’s growth model. We talk about what a migrant worker’s life is like, and how it may have changed in the past twenty years. We also touch on what’s happened since his book was published, as referenced in recent articles like: “The Discontent of Migrants Looms Over China”, The Wall Street Journal (6 March 2020) and “Don’t Count on China to Lift the Global Economy”, Foreign Affairs (8 April 2020).
Dexter Roberts is an award-winning writer and speaker on China, now serving as a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council Asia Security Initiative. He is also a fellow at the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center, and an adjunct instructor in political science at the University of Montana. Previously he was China bureau chief and Asia News Editor at Bloomberg Businessweek, based in Beijing for more than two decades. He also publishes a weekly newsletter called Trade War. More details can be found on his personal website.