Kulturrevolution von unten? / Cultural revolution from below?

German translation of the interview with Cultural and Art Museum of Migrant Workers’ founder Sun Heng and Lin Zhibin on LINKSNET

click LINKSNET logo to access text on http://www.linksnet.de/en/artikel/25864

go on here for english version

“If you aren’t aware of your culture
it seems that you haven’t existed in

Max Jorge Hinderer and Matthijs de Brujine in
conversation with Sun Heng, founder and
director of the Cultural and Art Museum of
Migrant Workers in Picun. Lin Zhibin, research
coordinator of the Cultural and Art Museum of
Migrant Workers, acted as interpreter.
Question: The Migrant Worker Museum is part of the
Migrant Workers’ Home. Could you tell us something
about the history of the Migrant Workers’ Home?

Sun Heng: First I will speak about my personal
experience, then about the history of the Migrant
Workers’ Home and then about the museum.
My name is Sun Heng. I was born in 1975 in Shaanxi
province, somewhere in the mountains. My parents
were farmers who worked in a state owned farm.
That means that they were employees of the state,
so they were able to enjoy social welfare. At the age
of twelve I went back to my parents’ hometown of
in the province of Henan, where my parents continued
working as farmer workers. The family had
twenty-seven mou of land, which is about two
hectares. I also helped the family with the work on
the fields. I studied in a normal college in a city in
Henan, where I majored in music education. After
my graduation I went back to Kaifeng City in Henan
province to teach music in a secondary school. I
only worked in that school for a year. I couldn’t
stand the rigid educational system in China—what
you are supposed to do as a teacher and the way to
teach the children. So I simply quit the job. That
was very unusual, because I had what was called
the “iron rice bowl.” This meant having a job that
was covered with insurance, and normally you did
not quit that job. That was in 1998, and I went to Beijing.
In the 1990s China underwent a big social transformation;
from a socialist system into what was
termed a “socialist market system” with privatization,
and many people lost their jobs. Also my parents;
although they were workers they didn’t get
paid. They had to go to the market and sell their
products in order to get a small income. I grew up
in a socialist society and now I had to face up to a
capitalist reality, so I didn’t know how to figure out
what was going on; I got very confused. I wanted to
change the world, but I did not know how. So I fell
in love with Rock and Roll music as a way of changing
Of course Rock and Roll comes from the Western
world. But I liked the spirit it conveys. For two
years I got lost in the music. Then I realized that
music itself is not the purpose. In 1999 I decided to
travel around China to meet people, to seek something
without knowing what I was looking for. I
started a trip with my guitar and I printed some
music I composed. I traveled around and played on
the street, in the countryside, in the subways, on the
construction sites, sometimes in the university
campus, meeting people, and talking with just anybody
in order to get to know the society. I learned
from foreign singers like Woody Guthrie and Billy
Bragg; I found out that they used music to speak
about social problems to the public. I admired them
a lot.
After one year wandering around I learned so
much especially about the life of what were called
the “low class people”: construction workers,
domestic workers, people who cook on the street,
even the policeman, all kind of people. They told
me many stories of their life and I could see their
optimism, although their life was not that easy.
In the year 2000 I went back to Beijing and I found
out that it was very difficult for migrant children to
get access to public school, so that they had to go to
a school for migrant children where the conditions
were very poor. In particular, they didn’t have music
teachers in these schools. So I wanted to teach in
one of these schools as a volunteer. Then I met more
migrant workers, and I saw that they didn’t have a
life apart from their work; it was only work, work,
work. They didn’t have a social life or cultural activities.
That’s why in April 2002 I established a group
called The Art Troupe of Young Migrant Workers
together with two or three other friends, including
Xu Duo. We decided to perform in various places:
construction sites, factories, or communities where
the migrants lived. Of course it was for free.
At that time we only wanted to provide some social
life, some entertainment for these people, nothing
else. After the performances we always chatted
with the workers and they told us they were facing
a lot of difficulties, for instance they were not paid
on time, or even not paid at all. We couldn’t help and
in the end we felt very lost.
We started to think about the cause of the problems
which the migrant worker cannot escape from
and has to face every day.
As you know, China is a dual society—the city
and the countryside are completely different. Social
and personal relationships are different in the countryside.
If people who were once farmers come to
the city they cannot get support from their social
network in the countryside anymore; they have no
support in the city. Finally we got this idea to set up
a place like a home, where the workers can come
and where we can help them.

Question: This is the Migrant Workers’ Home.
Could you explain more about the general structure?

Sun Heng: The Migrant Workers’ Home was
officially established in November 2002. In the
beginning we basically gave performances with an
art troupe. In the first year we had forty to fifty performances.
We had a hotline through which the
workers could call and ask legal questions that we
would try to answer. When we couldn’t manage the
case, we would try to get an answer from a lawyer
or a volunteer who knew the law better. We also
provided some legal and computer training. We
combined the entertainment with the articulation
of rights, through the songs and the content of the
lyrics raising awareness for people’s legal rights.
In 2004 we made some CDs. We didn’t think of publishing
them officially, we just burned some CDs
with a collection of our songs. And then a famous
big company from China listened to our music and
offered to publish our CDs. This company helped
to publish the CD, which sold 100,000 copies. Many
people such as university students and academics
who cared about the workers bought the CD. There
were some famous TV stars and pop show presenters
too who also tried to help sell the CD. We made
75,000 RMB profit with this CD. With this money
we established a migrant children school. We
rented the campus, which was an abandoned factory
that belonged to the village community, and
we built classrooms.
The contract was for twenty years. The initial
reason why we wanted to establish this school is
because we saw many migrant children having no
place to go to school and who had no place to play
around. So year by year we added other functions
in addition to the school.

Question: Did the local authorities know about your

Sun Heng: You see, in China there is not a single,
uniform government. You have the national
and provincial government and the municipality;
you have officials in the same department with different
ideas. So when you think about “the Chinese
government” it is not a uniform body. And also the
policies of the government are changing; many
things changed after the year 2003 in particular—
the new leadership (Hu Jintao) took power and
many politics changed.
Now in our school there are 400 students, from
kindergarten to the sixth grade primary school.
This school also serves the function of a community
learning centre as a night school. Members of
the community can come to the library and join in
with the legal training and computer training.

Question: Who are the members of this community
you are working for?

Sun Heng: Anybody who lives in the community
Picun village has access to the services we provide.
Picun is the village where our organization is
located; it is a typical village in the suburbs where
migrant workers live and work. Usually the people
stay for years in this community of Picun. Some
work in the factories in Picun village, others work
during the day downtown.

Question: Do you offer accommodation for migrant

Sun Heng: The workers rent rooms from the
local residents. The local residents used to be farmers;
now they don’t have farmland any more but
they own the real estate in the village. Across China
there are 240 million migrant workers who come
from the countryside to live and work in the cities.
These people are not considered to be full citizens
like the urban residents. They are considered to be
countryside people. They have no money to buy
apartments or houses to live. What they have to do
is to rent a place from the local residents; normally
the people from the countryside cannot afford to
rent an apartment, so normally they just rent a
room. An average family has only eight to twelve
square meters to live in.
So the villages in the suburb become more and
more like migrant worker communities. In Picun
there are only 1,400 local residents and over 10,000
migrants, nearly ten times as many as the local residents.
So that is why we call it a migrant workers’
Then we found out that the urban residents just
throw away their clothes and other things that are
out of fashion. So we got the idea to open a secondhand
shop. We ask for donations by the urban citizens
and we sell them to the migrant workers for a
very cheap price. The university students want to
get rid of their stuff after they graduate, so we also
ask them for donations for the shop. This is a way
to lower the cost of living for the migrant worker,
and on the other hand it is also environmentally
friendly for the whole society. We have six secondhand
shops in Picun village and the other villages.
We opened the first shop in 2005 and year by year
we are expanding. We recruit one or two staff for
each shop, so it also provides employment for some
workers. We make some profit, pay the staff, and
the rest is used to finance our activities. When some
poor kids come along they get products for free.
But then we came to realize that the mainstream
culture only tells us about the positive side of the
economic growth of China, so we started with the
idea of recording the history of the migrant worker.
Therefore in 2007 we started with the Art and Cultural
Museum of the Migrant Workers, because we
think culture is important. If you aren’t aware of
your culture it seems that you haven’t existed in history.
We have to remember that the purpose of the
museum is not just to record history, it is also to
change history. Recording what has happened in
the past gives a choice for reflection and for drawing
consequences about the future.

Question: What kind of people visit the museum?

Sun Heng: I remember that we had a meeting
with Xudou (the person responsible for the
museum), and we made a report that we had ten
thousand visitors by then. Some of the people from
Picun visit the museum—migrant workers from
across China who joined our other activities would
come to visit, and also people we don’t know. They
read some articles in the newspaper and just copied
the address and came. Also many people from Beijing:
students, scholars, some professors. We
received also several official visits; they came with
big official buses and delegates.
We realized that our museum is a little remote
and far away from anywhere, so we use the Internet
to gain more public attention. We have a website for
the museum, a set of exhibition boards, and an electronic
version of the Migrant Workers’ Museum so
we can show the exhibition in other parts of China.
Every year we have a special theme in the museum.
Last year we focused on thirty years after China’s
economic reform and opening up. This year we are
concentrating on the migrant workers’ residential
status. We will do an investigation and write a
report on that and exhibit it.
We also have an art and culture festival for the
migrant workers once a year. The first one we did
in January 2009. During this three-day festival we
had music and performances; we showed documentaries,
staged theatre plays, and organized workshops.

Question: If you are raising awareness of the situation
of the migrant worker, it is a sort of counter-narration.
What is presented as the official story of the migrant

Sun Heng: There is also an official migrant
worker museum in Shenzhen. In that museum you
will see the achievement, the economic growth of
China, all these typical official stories. You don’t see
the workers, their lives, and their emotions. You
only see the achievements of the government.
Question: What kind of objects do you collect
and display in the museum?
Sun Heng: The objects we show are donated by
the workers, including photos, letters, instruments,
work uniforms, the residential permission cards,
the articles, the CDs, the NGO publications. Also we
have collected the policies that the government
issued at different stages.
We now have a research centre and the publication
of books is becoming an important part of our
work. It is learning by doing. We did research on
children’s educational development. Now we are
conducting research and a survey on migrant workers’
residential rights. This again will be presented
as a report combined with an exhibition. It is more
a report for internal circulation. Of course, we
would like to publish it but it is a matter of money.
We distribute the reports on migrant children’s education
among the workers and those who are interested
and have time to read it; we send them to the
NGOs and share them with researchers. First we
made 300 copies and then another 300 copies. They
were gone so quickly we didn’t even know where
they went. We can also start workshops based on
this report, too. The first report was included in our
children’s festival, to which we invited researchers.
Now with the second report we will have a workshop
and invite also scholars and even some officials.
If a scholar is interested he is just one of the
participants, and is not dominant. That’s why it is
important to have our own research and our own
In addition, we have our theatre, our DVDs, and
CDs. Our plan is to have one new play CD, and DVD
a year.
So, I’ve outlined the overall structure of the
Migrant Workers’ Home: We have the art troupe,
we have the second-hand shops, we have the elementary
school for migrant children, we have the
museum, we have migrant children’s education and
development projects. The school is independent;
it is still without governmental support, but it
should function like a normal school. We employ
about twenty staff members in the school and for
the other projects we also have twenty employees,
so altogether we have forty staff members. Apart
from that we work with the help of a lot of volunteers,
students, and workers, about 200 to 300 every

Question: If you talk about 240 million migrant
workers in China, could you briefly sum up the history
of these people? When and how did it begin?

Sun Heng: This is a type of exploitation of capital
to labor. The development of European countries
is based on the exploitation of people in the
colonies—in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. In
China we do this to our own people in the countryside.
After the economic transformation in 1978
this exploitation and this kind of capital accumulation
at the cost of the countryside continued.

Question: How can we understand the function of
the Hukou? Is this part of the structure of exploitation?

Sun Heng: In 1949 during the first process of
industrialization the status of workers was very
high. But there was a shortage of food and agricultural
production was very low at the beginning of
the 1950s. Because of these problems not many
workers were needed. One had to control the population
movement from the countryside to the city,
that’s why in 1958 the government issued the
household registration system. That belongs to the
past and now since 1978, with the free flow of capital,
the household registration system has become
a way of exploiting the peasants. It creates inequalities
between the people from the countryside and
the people from the cities.
In small and medium-sized cities it is easy for
people to become an urban citizen if you have to
stay and work there for a certain amount of time.
And some local governments in big cities are experimenting
with reforms. In Shanghai for example,
after you have worked and lived there seven years
you can apply for Shanghai citizenship, but of
course only under certain conditions and criteria.

Question: The theatre pieces or the contents of the
songs show the dream to create collective processes insisting
on the rights of the migrant workers and insisting on
overcoming the state of exploitation which is based on
irregular payments without any insurance and no
proper permission to stay. Would you add any further
facts concerning exploitation?

Sun Heng:We see this as an historical moment;
huge numbers of people are changing their identity
from farmers to urban citizens. Now there are
240 million migrant workers. This could increase to
300 to 400 million in the coming years.
Our idea is to promote the positive elements of a new
migrant workers’ culture. We use culture as a tool to create
awarenessamongworkers. We alsohopethatcultureisaway
of building international solidarity among the workers. Capital
is already globalized, but the workers are separated in different
countries, so we hope that the workers’ culture can be
internationalized. Ifeconomicliberationissaidtobesohighly
important, howmuchmoreimportantisculturalemancipationfortheworkingclassinthesenseof“

Question: Do you collaborate with other similar
organizations in China?

Sun Heng: The government organizes part of
the cultural activities through cultural activity centers.
These centers exist in every city as a place for
music, cinema, theatre, and so on. The culture activity
center in our district supports many of our activities,
especially the director.
We also have collaborations with twenty different
associations in universities in Beijing, where
many student volunteers come to offer their voluntary
services. We have collaborations with twenty
NGOs across China, working in the same field as we
do, and we have cooperation with companies.
These companies have corporate social responsibility
(CSR) sections that always look for some specific
issues and then they give financial support. It is
more for increasing their public visibility and having
a good public image. We also have contacts in
the mass media. We have little contact with unions,
but right now we are passing through a very interesting
phase. The local government just told us that
they are supporting us to establish a community
trade union. It came all of a sudden a few weeks ago.
While I was away, when our colleagues sent me the
message that we have formed a union which was
supported by the local government, at first I
thought it was a joke.

Question: Couldn’t it be the turning point if workers
themselves can organize the unions?

Lin Zhibin: That’s why you cannot use a rigid
view on the Chinese government. China has a big
population and there are many possibilities.

Question: But in Guangdong it is quite tough for
labor organizations, isn’t it? How important are these
struggles in Chinese society?

Sun Heng: The relationship between the workers
and the companies, the capital, is one of conflict.
There are many labor conflicts in the south at the
moment. These conflicts are often short term and
not organized. Trade unions are only active in state
owned companies, and they don’t represent
migrant workers. Migrant workers normally don’t
work in state owned companies.

Question: Last year in Guangdong I saw how
many migrant workers went back to the countryside.
Can you tell us how the financial crisis affected China
over the last year?

Sun Heng: The financial crisis first affected the
coastal area, where the export production is concentrated.
Many factories closed down; therefore
many workers lost their jobs. So the factories that
produced production material were also affected.
Obviously labor relations became very tense. The
government has announced that twenty-five million
migrant workers lost their jobs. Five million
students who graduated last year couldn’t find a job.
At that time the government made a statement say-
ing that the migrant workers should go back to the
countryside and start a new career over there. They
tried to transfer the crisis to the countryside. It may
have been possible to find many opportunities during
the good times in the countryside, but how
many opportunities will you find there during the
bad times? It is not surprising that people come
back. Over 95 percent of the migrant workers have
already come back to the cities. And the Chinese
government has issued a 4,000 billion RMB package
to stimulate the economy and that has increased
the amount of jobs in construction work.

Question: How did the neoliberal economy in general
affect social relationships in China?

Sun Heng: Now everything moves around capital.
If you have a job with a lot of income you are
respected, otherwise you are not. Even in the countryside
the old traditions have broken down and it
is all about money. All the people are very individualized
because they have to compete and make a
profit, individualized to achieve the capitalist ideal.
Socialism failed in Russia and China but we cannot
deny the successful part of the history of the socialist
countries. We should learn from these parts and
learn lessons from the failures. We should also look
at the new socialist movements in Latin America
as a hope, an alternative.

Question: Talking about international systems, and
the national situation in China, you said previously that
capital is global anyway. So this exhibition is based on
the thesis that capital is global from at least the sixteenth
century onwards. So coming back to the situation of the
migrant worker in China: To what extent are the
migrant workers aware of this?

Sun Heng: Many migrant workers are affected
by the global crisis and they know what it is. The
ones who are literate are able to get more information.
And there are also scholars who actually join
the workers to discuss with them. Many workers
are producing things and they know that they will
be exported somewhere else, in America or in
Europe. But workers’ awareness is only generated
through discussions, and that’s why we have to take
a historical responsibility.

The interview was conducted in Mannheim, September 9, 2009.

Matthijs de Bruijne and Max Jorge Hinderer would like to thank Lin Zhibin for the English translation and Peter Franke for his support.


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