Inside the Crisis Facing the Migrant Chinese Workers Who Power American Companies

An aging population, a trade war, and now a pandemic have left the Chinese working class reeling

Patrick J. Sauer
Published in
8 min readMar 12, 2020


A woman worker assembles earphones for export in a factory in Suining in southwest China’s Sichuan province on Dec. 17, 2019.
Photo: Feature China/Barcroft Media/Getty Images

OnOn March 2, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released a report entitled “Coronavirus: The World Economy at Risk.” The report is heavily focused on China and how the country’s projected slow growth of under 5%, due to stagnating industrial production and consumer demand — and the outbreak of the new coronavirus — will have a ripple effect on the rest of the world. Thanks to these factors and the ongoing tariff war, U.S. brands have been scrambling to diversify manufacturing into other countries like Vietnam, where Google is reportedly set to begin manufacturing its Pixel smartphone next month.

This will have major effects on the global GDP and relations between the United States and the world’s second-largest economy, but those most affected will be Chinese workers. Half a billion people from China’s rural provinces have either been left behind or headed off to the cities to earn scraps in the factory towns. During China’s boom years, wages went up, and the country made incredible strides in reducing extreme poverty, but things had been cooling off even before the coronavirus hit. The tightening of the economy during the pandemic could have devastating effects on the people who can least afford it, as manufacturers flee or drive costs down as far as they can.

Dexter Roberts. Photo: Mark Bryant

The forgotten people who have been building the world’s products are the subject of a new book by Dexter Roberts, reporter and former China bureau chief at Bloomberg Businessweek, The Myth of Chinese Capitalism: The Worker, the Factory, and the Future of the World. Roberts, who lived in China from 1995 to 2018, wanted to know more about the effects of the country’s staggering growth on the workaday folks in the hinterlands. Crisscrossing the country many times — think Marco Polo with a MacBook — he tells the stories of the people who suffered its costs, like Bai Yaojie, a 21-year-old worker at the Foxconn factory in Guandong…