Friday essay: what the migrant workers who made my iPhone taught me about love

Zhan Youbing, Author provided
Zhan Youbing, Author provided

Ten years ago, a group of images on a popular Chinese website caught my attention. They showed young rural migrant workers in intimate, though not overtly sexual situations: talking quietly, holding hands, kissing, embracing, or simply sitting close to each other with their limbs intertwined.

These intimate moments all take place in public spaces in the industrial areas of Dongguan, Guangdong Province, where these workers live and work – on the lawn of a park, on a bench by the roadside, at a table outside a snack bar, in a community library, in a public phone booth, on a city street. While some women in the photos wear casual or even sexy clothes, others wear factory uniforms.

As a cultural anthropologist who has spent 20 years studying rural migrant workers in China, I was immediately captivated by these images. I liked their realism. But what intrigued me were the polarised comments about them.

Some were one-liners such as “So sweet”; “How romantic”; “They are so pure and innocent”; “Love doesn’t discriminate against the poor”; “Life is beautiful because love exists.”

Others were harsh. One comment said that Shenzhen and Dongguan were full of “illicit love birds”. Criticism of such intimate acts was also implied in another post, which said “most of these couples are just after sex; love doesn’t really come into it.” One of the comments struck me as particularly judgemental:

They’re not interested in learning, they have no souls, they give free rein to their bodily urges. They feel no responsibility for themselves, their family, and society. They’re after cheap sexual pleasure. What do they know about love?

Wanning Sun’s decade-long journey into the intimate consequences of inequality among Shenzen’s migrant workers began with a series of photos. Zhan Youbing, Author provided
Wanning Sun’s decade-long journey into the intimate consequences of inequality among Shenzen’s migrant workers began with a series of photos. Zhan Youbing, Author provided

Looking back, I realise it was my initial fascination with this group of photos that started me on a decade-long journey of exploring the intimate consequences of inequality.

I wanted to know what rural migrant workers themselves would make of these images and these polarised responses. I wanted to know what it feels like to go on yet another blind date arranged by their parents, to steal an intimate moment in compromised circumstances, and to endure the stigma of not being able to afford a wife.

The iPhone and iPad workers of Shenzen

Driven by these questions, I started my fieldwork in 2015 in the newly created industrial zone of Longhua District in Shenzhen – a manufacturing sector in the Pearl River Delta that is a major employer of China’s rural migrant factory workers.

From 2015 to 2017, I spent an average of one month each year talking to a total of 50 migrant men and women who worked for Foxconn in Shenzhen – people who assembled the iPhones and iPads we use. In addition to these in-depth, one-off interviews, I also invited ten workers – five men and five women – to participate in my research over three years, so I could document the changes in their lives.

The production line at Foxconn, making iPhones and iPads. Kin Cheung/AP
The production line at Foxconn, making iPhones and iPads. Kin Cheung/AP

During this period, I met members of these workers’ families, and spent as much time as possible with them: chatting, cooking, eating, shopping and watching television, or simply “hanging out.” I closely followed the developments in their love lives in 2018 and 2019. To this day, I still communicate with them regularly via WeChat.

The main site of my fieldwork was Village Q, a “village within the city” enclave that lies outside Foxconn’s plant. Inside the village, the smell of food wafts in the street, as does the sound of popular songs lamenting the travails of unrequited love, betrayal and loneliness.

Spicy aromas of food from Hunan, Hubei and Sichuan fill the nostrils, ameliorating homesickness and gratifying the chilli-loving palates of large cohorts of workers from these provinces. Shops selling lottery tickets, mobile phone accessories and groceries line the streets, as do internet cafes, hair salons, and “accommodation” venues of a dubious nature, selling temporary intimacy at hourly rates.

The streets are littered with promotional material in the form of cards or leaflets advertising myriad goods and services, ranging from “factory girls” who are happy to spend a night with you for a reasonable fee, to clinics offering a “quick and painless abortion.”

Everything migrant workers need for subsistence can be found here. It’s all cheap and cheerful, catering exclusively to workers on a wage of around 3,000 yuan (approximately US$440) a month.

Shenzen’s ‘Village Q’ Wanning Sun, Author provided
Shenzen’s ‘Village Q’ Wanning Sun, Author provided

Each morning, around 7.30, I would see a steady stream of workers hurrying toward the northern and western gates of the Foxconn factory, breakfast in one hand and sleep still in their eyes, afraid to risk having their pay docked for being even a couple of minutes late.

At the same time, another stream of workers going in the opposite direction would emerge from the same gates, dragging their tired bodies after a 12-hour shift, looking pale and numb, heading for bed in their dormitory or rental accommodation. Everyone wore a lanyard with their Foxconn photo ID card hanging from it; no one was allowed to enter or leave the plant without swiping their card.

‘A very modest dream’

The rural migrant workers I talked to are often referred to as nongmingong, literally translated into “peasant worker”. Rural migrants can be found in the manufacturing sector, where I conducted this study. They are also in the construction sector, the service and hospitality sector, small businesses, and a wide range of other areas.

Chinese cities cannot function smoothly for a single day without rural migrants. The China’s so-called economic miracle simply would not have been possible without the cheap labour they supply.

Nongmingong have become part of urban life since the start of the economic reforms of the 1980s. China’s National Bureau of Statistics finds that as of 2020, there were up to 286 million “peasant workers”. That’s more than ten times Australia’s entire population.

The rural migrants I talked to were born in the 1980s and 1990s. They are the children of the rural migrants who went to the city to seek employment during China’s first two decades of economic reforms. Most of these younger workers have little or no experience in farming.

Most rural migrants Wanning Sun spoke to harbour the ‘very modest dream’ of finding a life partner, and the chance for family and a better life. Zhan Youbing, Author provided
Most rural migrants Wanning Sun spoke to harbour the ‘very modest dream’ of finding a life partner, and the chance for family and a better life. Zhan Youbing, Author provided

They tend to be better educated and more engaged with urban consumption culture than their parents, but they also feel more stuck, angry and disillusioned – unlike their parents, who had always intended to go back to the village, they generally want to remain in the city. However, they see little hope of doing so, and are often unwilling even to contemplate returning to their native villages.

Most rural migrants I talked to harbour what might seem to be a very modest dream: of finding a life partner, having the chance to start a family, and living with a little more dignity and less discrimination in their often bleak and harsh lives.

Since they still hold rural residential registration status, they have less access to a wide range of socioeconomic benefits – health care, education, housing and employment – than city folk do. This is despite the fact they have lived in the city all their lives, and have spent their youth and prime years contributing to China’s economic growth.

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‘Without betrothal gift, my family would be embarrassed’

I first met WJ, a clerical employee at Foxconn, in August 201. WJ comes from a rural village in Henan Province, one of the biggest labour-sending counties in Henan. She was 27 years old, and had been away from home for more than ten years.

WJ’s mother was also a first-generation rural migrant worker. But several years of long hours and night shifts working in a garment factory finally took their toll, and WJ’s mother returned home, nursing a chronic high blood pressure condition. WJ’s only brother had just gotten married and was expecting a baby, so he was living at home for the moment.

At the age of 16, just after finishing middle school, WJ decided to “go out” (chu qu – leave her hometown), since there was nothing to do in the village, and there was no work. The small piece of farming land available to the family brought in little income.

WJ’s story exemplifies the dilemma of being caught between parental opinions and her own desires.

Born in 1988, WJ was aware that many women her age were already married with children. She liked someone she met online, but she was not sure how to proceed. In the eyes of her mother, this potential marriage partner had three strikes against him: he owned no property; he had two younger, unmarried brothers (so he may have needed to support them in the future); and his mother could not help with childcare. And to add the final straw, he may not have been able to afford a betrothal gift, even though the expected betrothal “fee” (caili) from the groom’s family in WJ’s hometown is not high.

Then WJ met S, who had a university degree, and then worked in a company in Shenzhen. WJ hoped to find someone better educated or financially better off than she was.

This traditional preference to “marry up” on the part of female rural migrants explains why, despite the large number of male workers in Foxconn, women still report difficulty in finding “suitable partners”.

There is a traditional preference to ‘marry up’ on the part of female rural migrants. Zhan Youbing, Author provided
There is a traditional preference to ‘marry up’ on the part of female rural migrants. Zhan Youbing, Author provided

Even though WJ did not think S was very “handsome”, she felt what he lacked in looks was compensated for by his superior education. While WJ was keen on S, her mother disapproved. S’s mother was mentally ill, and there was not a marital house for the would-be couple. Furthermore, S’s family could not afford to pay betrothal money – an amount of about 100,000 yuan (more than AUD$20,000) – in WJ’s hometown.

The practice of giving “betrothal money” to the bride’s family has survived in China from a much earlier era. WJ was aware that paying a betrothal fee to the bride’s family was a bad “feudal” custom, but it had been done for generations and her family felt it should be followed:

Personally, I don’t care if he has no caili, but I know my family would be embarrassed. What would our neighbours think of us? Everybody else follows the tradition, and who are we to break it? People may say that your daughter is so cheap she’s prepared to go without any betrothal money.

WJ’s mother put pressure on her to consider a young man who now had a small local business, and whose family was keen to cement the marriage with a handsome amount of betrothal money as well as an engagement ring.

WJ was not in the least interested in that man – “we have nothing in common” – but she was worried that her open defiance might further upset her mother’s health. So, while her mother went ahead and accepted the betrothal money and ring from the other suitor, WJ secretly continued seeing S.

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‘My daughter doesn’t want to talk to me anymore’

In the married cohort I talked to, MB’s story was fairly common: parents arranging matchmaking, the couple getting married after a few meetings, the relationship falling apart soon after marriage.

After MB married this way and their daughter was born, she and her husband came to work at Foxconn in Shenzhen. Their daughter, four years old at the time I met MB for our first interview in 2015, was being cared for by MB’s mother-in-law back in the village.

At that meeting, MB told me she had not seen her daughter for a couple of years. She could only get leave during the Chinese New Year period, but she could not secure a train ticket because of the high demand during peak seasons. Once, she got up at 4am and queued for three hours, only to find that the tickets for her train home had sold out.

Social media platforms such as QQ and WeChat were useful to connect with her daughter, but only to a limited extent. Her mother-in-law did not know how to use QQ – she did not even have QQ on her phone – so MB could only see her daughter on QQ when her mother-in-law visited relatives. On average, she saw her daughter once every two or three months. But she was sad that her daughter no longer wanted to talk to her.

MB lived in Foxconn’s dormitory, whereas her husband lived in a small rented room near the factory. They seldom saw each other in the factory – it was a huge complex and they worked in different departments. MB went to visit him on Sundays when they both had a day off. She told me that she would help him tidy up his room, wash his clothes, and cook a meal.

MB (not pictured) lived in Foxconn’s dormitory and visited her husband in the small rented room where he lived on their shared day off. Zhan Youbing, Author provided
MB (not pictured) lived in Foxconn’s dormitory and visited her husband in the small rented room where he lived on their shared day off. Zhan Youbing, Author provided

My first guess about their decision to live separately was that it was a way of saving costs. But it wasn’t until I met MB for a second face-to-face interview in the following year that she became more open about her conjugal problems.

They fought all the time, and could not agree on anything, even though she was quite sure there was no other woman in his life. The tension between the couple was not just due to an incompatibility of personalities. They also disagreed about the future.

MB believed they should work as hard as possible while they were still young, and save enough money so that they would not have to work so hard when they eventually went back home. At this stage of her life she also preferred to be living in the city, and did not want to go back home. In comparison, her husband was less enthusiastic about city living, and would not mind going back home.

MB has tried to engineer opportunities for her to talk with her husband.

His rental room is small – only big enough for a bed – dark and stuffy, so one time I suggested we go out for a walk. So, we went for a walk, and I sensed he was in a much better mood, and for the first time, he talked about some things from his childhood. After that, whenever we had another fight, I’d suggest we get out of his room and go for a walk. But he wouldn’t do that anymore. He said, “That’s just your trick of getting me out so you can discuss our relationship.”

MB knew in theory that she needed to “communicate”, but she said she did not know how to in practice. Nor did she know how to communicate with someone who refused to engage.

MB echoed the sentiments of quite a few migrant women I spoke to, who were eager to talk to their husbands but did not know how to get through to them. An expression that came up frequently in my conversations with migrant women about their partners was “cold violence” (lengbaoli), referring to the absence of physical violence but the presence of aggressive and hostile refusals to engage – in effect, emotional abuse.

Last year, MB told me via WeChat, 11 years since I first spoke to her, that she was finally divorced. She is still working at Foxconn.

Read more: 'Hukou', and what birthplace can still mean for marriage in China

‘You never get ahead by working hard’

These conversations made me realise experiences in people’s intimate lives are shaped by differences in gender as well as socioeconomic status. ZB is one of the five men whose love lives I followed, but he was the only one who recently found someone and got married.

When I first met ZB in 2015, he was still single, and he offered this explanation why the odds were against migrant men like him “getting girls”:

People like us come from the countryside, and we don’t own a house or car, and many of us can’t afford the cost of getting married, including caili. If you’re poor but good-looking, you may have a chance. But then again, if you are that good-looking, you wouldn’t be a worker at Foxconn, would you?

Also, girls like boys who have glib tongues and pay them a lot of attention and shower them with gifts, even though these boys may not have serious intentions. Younger people, those born in the 1990s, tend to have a more casual approach when it comes to girls. Older ones like me who were born in the 1980s are more serious.

I’ve seen too many boys who are honest and want to do the honourable thing by girls, but they’re shy and don’t know how to talk to them. That may not be a problem if you’re loaded with money; your money can talk on your behalf. But what chance do you have if you have no money, you look ordinary, and you don’t know how to talk to girls? Most of the men you see here fit that description, especially those born in the 1980s.

And let’s face it, girls like men who are confident and can sweet talk them, even though they may not be as dependable as the honest, quiet ones. That’s why you see so many lonely souls here – starving for love, sexually frustrated, and feeling lost.

Wanning Sun followed some of China’s so-called ‘leftover men’. Zhan Youbing, Author provided
Wanning Sun followed some of China’s so-called ‘leftover men’. Zhan Youbing, Author provided

JH is one of the so-called “leftover men” I followed. Born in 1986, JH grew up in a mountain village in southeast of China. When I first met him in 2015 in Shenzhen, he was working 12 hours a day, six days a week at Foxconn plant, assembling iPhones. “That’s one of the iPads we make,” he said, noticing mine.

JH frequently changed jobs during the period of my fieldwork. By August 2019, he was working as a security guard in a hotel. I asked him why he had left his last job making furniture. He told me the company had to lay off many people because of China’s trade war with the United States, and his company faced too much competition from inland factories in Chengdu and Jiangsu, so he had to work more for less pay. He could no longer make enough to support himself.

JH is tall and dark, with a well-chiselled face – my assessment of his good looks was shared by other workers, both male and female. But he had had no luck in finding a girlfriend. In my meetings with him, he was quiet, softly spoken and shy. He found it difficult to strike up a conversation with a stranger. But other migrants who knew him well all commented on his loyalty as a friend.

Unlike those glib-tongued men who “get girls easily”, JH would not ask a girl out even if he was attracted to her, because he feared rejection. Because of this, he lived with a constant sense of failure. Furthermore, he did not believe in wasting time on frivolous affairs:

If I like a girl and want to go out with her, I want to make sure she knows I’m serious. I don’t want to waste her time, or my time. Also, I want to behave responsibly toward the girl. I don’t want to take advantage of her, only to leave her later. I also don’t want to say and do nice things – such as buying her gifts – just to please her and get close to her, with no intention of marrying her. It’s not the right thing to do. I know I’m old-fashioned.

JH was referring here to some younger rural migrant workers in their twenties, some even as young as their late teens, who “get girls” easily, but have no intention of staying in a relationship with them or getting married.

Some younger rural migrant workers ‘get girls easily’, but have no intention of staying in a relationship or getting married. Zhan Youbing, Author provided
Some younger rural migrant workers ‘get girls easily’, but have no intention of staying in a relationship or getting married. Zhan Youbing, Author provided

In addition to his loneliness, JH’s sense of failure is exacerbated by a feeling of guilt for letting his parents down:

They [his parents] sacrificed so much to bring me up, and all they want to see is that I’m married. But I’m not able to give them that. They try not to put too much pressure on me, but I know they’re also under a lot of pressure from neighbours and relatives. I have two sisters and I’m their only son. So, they always try to set me up with a date when I go home. I feel I need to go along with these meetings, but nothing ever comes of them.

In the past, JH had believed that, as long as he was prepared to work hard, he might have been able to change his circumstances. After all these years of job hopping, he remains a source of disposable cheap labour. He earns enough money to survive on, but has nothing left to save, and certainly isn’t acquiring any certified professional skills. Now, he is adamant that “you never get ahead by working hard.”

Read more: Pity China's 'bare branches': unmarried men stuck between tradition and capitalism

Love doesn’t conquer all

One key message I got from my conversations with workers is that love does not conquer all, as we are often told. Instead, market logic and socioeconomic inequality largely determine the extent of success or failure in the pursuit of dreams and intimate desires on the part of the rural men and women in the study.

My research tells me that although people from all social classes experience “love troubles”, an individual’s capacity to ward off such troubles often depends on their socioeconomic position.

As shown in the polarised responses to the photos discussed earlier, inequality not only shapes how much access people in different classes have to intimacy, it also shapes how their intimate practices are talked about: both by themselves and in public narratives.

For instance, I talked to both young rural migrants and their educated urban counterparts about how they made decisions about wedding photography. Both cohorts considered wedding photography essential to their marriages, but they attached different meanings and significance to this ritual of consumption.

The love lives of the workers are not only personal and individual matters; they are closely related to how the Chinese state governs. Much government funding has gone into research about the lived reality of a large cohort of unmarried and sexually repressed rural migrant men in urban China: mainly because sexual frustration is usually believed to be a law and order issue, and may pose a serious threat to moral order and social stability. The aim, therefore, is largely to find ways of governing vulnerable communities and managing inequality.

I did get to ask workers to comment on those images of lovers in Dongguan: the ones that started me on my ten-year journey of discovery. Their responses were mostly along the lines of “So what?”

To them, what was represented in these pictures was simply their everyday lives: “These are very familiar to me; I see people like this everywhere, all the time.” Some even told me they had “been there and done that” and that “it’s nothing to make a fuss about.”

It’s clear that workers didn’t want people to romanticise their love lives – and nor did they wish to be patronised, judged or censured.

Wanning Sun’s new book, Love Troubles: Inequality in China and its Intimate Consequences, is published by Bloomsbury, May 2023.

This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Wanning Sun, University of Technology Sydney.

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This study was funded by the Australian Research Council Discovery Grant "Inequality in Love - Romance and Intimacy among China's Young Migrant Workers" (ARC DP150103544)