‘The sharp contrast between the lives in cities and countryside always struck me. Submerged under the glamour of the modern metropolis, the poverty in the vast rural area is overwhelming. As I travelled, I started to focus on the migrant workers, whom I believe have contributed the most to China’s prosperity but benefitted the least.’ Lixin Fan – Director – Last Train Home (2010)
The film released in the West as ‘Last Train Home’ is actually entitled ’歸途列車 (Gui Tu Lie Che)’, or ‘Homeward Train’, and is a documentary produced over a period of several years from 2006 onwards. It was released in China in 2009 and in the West in 2011. It covers the lives of the Zhang family who own a large plot of land within Sichuan province, and who were previously peasant-farmers prior to the modernisation of China. As the government embarked upon the introduction into China of Socialist capitalist forces, families had to relocate to the cities where large industries (employing thousands of people) have been established. Despite many permanently resettling in the cities, and abandoning their farm land, it is estimated that around 130 million migrant workers make the trip into the cities, whilst older and younger members of their families stay on the farm land and look after the home. This army of migrant workers spend 50 weeks of the year working in factories that provide living quarters and regular food to their workers. It is only during the two-week holiday of Chinese New Year that the factories shut-down and the employees are allowed home.
The Zhang Family:
Grandmother – Tang Tingsui
Father – Zhang Changhua
Mother – Chen Suqin
Daughter – Zhang Qin
Son – Zhang Yang
Last Train Home – http://www.zeitgeistfilms.com/lasttrainhome/
Chinese New Year – which occurs around January or February depending upon the time of the ‘spring’ new moon – is the only time of the year that everything grinds to a complete standstill in China, and everyone travels to be with their families. This tradition is thousands of years old and has its roots in the feudalistic notions of Confucian filial piety, or expressions of respect for one’s parents. Eating a meal together, around a large table signifies ‘completion’ and the maintenance of ‘order’ throughout society. The millions of migrant workers – or mobile proletariat – have to compete for limited train tickets at the local train stations, at this important time of the year. The system is such that the affordable tickets go on sale around a day or two before the train is due to depart, and there is no guarantee once a ticket is purchased, that a train will turn-up to carry the workers home. The nearer the time gets for the train to depart, the higher the price of the tickets become. Although the film features a number of ‘return’ journeys home for the Zhang family, often they are left with no option than to fight thousands of others to get on the ‘last’ train running-out of Guangzhou to their homeland in Sichuan. Even with tickets, the trains are crammed to maximum capacity with the workers and their luggage which can vary from modest bags to massive cases. Most people remain standing for the entire two day journey which can be longer if the train suffers mechanical failure, or the weather prevents onward movement. As there is a general panic this time of year, many people are hurt during the crush at the train stations, and occasionally a tragic fatality occurs. It is normal practice for the authorities to ask the migrant workers to behave with civility toward one another, whilst simultaneously deploying riot police, and even the military, to keep order. This film often shows the police and soldiers acting with sympathy towards the massive crowds who are waiting for trains that never seem to appear.
The Zhang family portrayed consists of a husband and wife, a grandmother, and a young boy (son) and a teenage girl (daughter). Initially it is the husband and wife who work in Guangzhou for the year, and the grandmother stays on the farm and single-handedly looks after the land whilst bringing-up two demanding youths. As the daughter gets older (around 17 years old), there is a touching scene where she is filmed kneeling and lighting incense at the family grave of her grandfather, whilst explaining to his spirit that she wants to give-up her education (against her parents wishes), and like her parents, travel to the city and work in the factories. This is exactly what she does, but her parents are of the opinion that to breakout of the cycle of migrant working, their two children should study at school and university whilst they ‘eat the bitterness’ of life, on their behalf. In other words, the suffering of the parents caused by the exploitative factory system earns a certain amount of economic freedom for their children to enjoy. With this freedom – something the previous generation of toilers did not possess – the children are in a position to ‘think’ their way out of poverty, and gain educational qualifications that have the potential to change their lives. However, it is clear that the son is not keen on school, even though his parents do nothing but encourage and support him, whilst the daughter has developed the viewpoint that because her parents are never home, they do not love or care for her. It is ironic that this young woman, freed as she is from the tyranny of feudalistic history, nevertheless uses this ‘freedom’ to attack and criticise the very vehicle (i.e. her parents) that has provided it for her! Whilst the parents suffer routinely, their daughter is seen working in a factory for a short while, before being attracted by the glitz and bright lights of the hedonistic city life, and its underbelly. She ends-up going from place to place, and from job to job, occasionally signing-up for education courses, and then leaving them unfinished. Although not openly stated in the film, there is a definite impression that her parents continue to support her financially, as she exercises her newly found ‘freedom’.This film is a masterpiece that shows modern China as it develops from the Communist Revolution of Mao Zedong, and through the economic reforms of Deng Xiao Ping. Officially in China the embracing of ‘free market economics’ is termed ‘Socialist Market Forces’, and is designed to rapidly develop the infrastructure and superstructure of the Chinese state. This has seen the abandoning of the ‘iron rice bowl’ developed by Mao (that was based upon the Soviet model), which saw the Chinese people cared for by the state from the cradle to the grave, and the instigation of privatisation and self-sufficiency, albeit within a firm legal framework that is designed to curve the more brutal elements associated with capitalism. For instance, generally speaking it is illegal to lay workers off, and an attempt is made to keep jobs by cutting wages – but the reality of this policy is that many workers can no longer work for such low wages and voluntarily quit their jobs – this has been the case with the mother in this documentary, who has now returned to the farm, whilst her husband continues to work in the factories of Guangzhou. This film demonstrates ‘modern’ China and does show how far China has developed – and continues to develop – under her own steam. Gone are the days of Chinese people kowtowing to imperialist foreigners who preferred travel in rickshaws or sedan chairs propelled by virtual slaves. China is quickly going through the trauma of industrialisation – a process that the UK has experienced over the last two hundred years or so. Capitalist market forces are required to modernise and create new freedoms – indeed to create a fully functioning proletariat – that will lead the country to a bright new future. This kind of essential growth is riddled with suffering as the work of Marx continuously demonstrates. The difference between the USA, for instance, and China is that China openly acknowledges the superiority of Marxist thought and is striving to succeed where the Soviet Union ultimately failed, whereas the USA simply adheres to the principle of free market economics, which is in reality simply the ongoing perpetuation of greed for profit that will always favour the privileged few. China is undergoing a vitally important social experiment that has untold implications for the future of humanity. This simple film has caught the essence of that process.