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Xu Lizhi’s hope and hopelessness – an epitome of Chinese migrant poets


A New Day, a poem by Xu Lizhi

Hundreds of thousands of people travel from China's countryside to its cities to work in factories, building devices for international consumers and trying to assemble better lives for themselves. Xu Lizhi left behind a haunting record of that life.

He dreamed about it, wrote about it. He rolled it around in the palm of his hand. Working through the "dark night of overtime" in January 2014, the 23-year-old Xu Lizhi imagined himself like a misplaced screw, "plunging vertically, lightly clinking," lost to the factory floor. "It won't attract anyone's attention," he wrote. "Just like the last time/ On a night like this/ When someone plunged to the ground."

Xu moved to the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen in 2011. He was looking for a way out of rural life; he hoped to find a way to use his mind. Like hundreds of thousands before him, he settled, to start, for a spot on the assembly line at Foxconn Technology Group, the Taiwan manufacturing giant linked to just about every other name in electronics, from Apple to Acer and Microsoft. To make sense of what he saw there, he started to write, his evocative work earning him a modest following in the city's small community of dagong shiren, or migrant poets.

In his 3½ years in Shenzhen, Xu captured life there in brutal, beautiful detail. In the city, the country kid found a voice that roared, publishing poems in company newspaper Foxconn People and sharing his work online. Factory workers are often treated as interchangeable, anonymous. To readers, his words were a reminder that every laborer has a mind and heart; for him, writing was a way out. "Writing poems gives me another way of life," he told a Chinese journalist in an unpublished interview that TIME has seen. "When you're writing poems, you're not confined to the real world."

The complex known as Longhua is home to some 100,000 workers from across China. In 2010, at least 17 attempted suicide; 14 died. Thanks to confidentiality clauses and tight security, it was hard to know what was happening on the inside. Labor groups blamed working conditions: long hours, modest pay and mindless, repetitive work. The late Steve Jobs, a major customer, called the deaths "troubling" . Foxconn countered that conditions were fine.

Outside activist circles, many accepted the notion that young workers were cheerfully trading their youth for a better livelihood. They imagined that they, like the rest of China, were rushing unambivalently toward consumer capitalism, saving their factory wages for ever-newer, shinier phones.

That, of course, was only part of the story. The great economic experiment orchestrated by Mao Zedong's heirs paved the way for more than 35 years of growth and profound social transformation. but it was ordinary Chinese like Xu who toiled their way to lives that their parents could not have imagined.

Xu alternated between hope and hopelessness. He dared to hope for respite from monotony and a chance to use his talent, and twice summoned the courage to apply, unsuccessfully, for desk jobs — as a librarian at the factory, and at his favorite Shenzhen bookstore Youyi. But when a local journalist asked him about his future, he said he could not expect too much: "We all hope our lives will become better and better, but most of us don't control our destiny."

September in 2014, Xu Lizhi, by then 24, walked to a mall across from his favorite bookstore, took the elevator to the 17th floor, and jumped to his death.

In the wake of his death, labor groups translated Xu's work into English, leading to notices in Bloomberg News and the Washington Post. Chinese poet Qin Xiaoyu is making a documentary film about Xu's life and work.

Zhou Qizao, a fellow worker-poet, enned a defiant tribute: "Another screw comes loose/ Another migrant worker brother jumps/ You die in place of me/ And I keep writing in place of you."


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