The Sanhe Gods

by Katherine Whitworth

MIGRANT WORKERS seduced by the dazzling prosperity of the east coast of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have long travelled from poor villages and provincial townships to cities such as Shenzhen, Shanghai, and Beijing in the hope of crossing the threshold into urban life with all its riches. China’s Fourteenth Five-Year Plan, released in March 2021, reinforces this vision of imminent prosperity. Shenzhen’s own Five-Year Plan, promulgated in June 2021, promotes the southern city as a centre for technological development and urban renewal.

This story considers the impact of these plans on a group of migrant workers colloquially known as the ‘Sanhe Gods’ 三和大神. It situates the Sanhe Gods and their difficulties in the context of 2021 policies, which focus on prosperity but omit mention of those who will shoulder the burden of its achievement — those living at the very edges of urban life. The Sanhe Gods may no longer be the symbol of the marginalised in Shenzhen because the physical spaces they occupied have been erased, but they have adopted another identity, another story, as their everyday precarity persists. Or, as one online commentary put it: ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow, how many tomorrows will come?’1

Introducing the Sanhe Gods

Sanhe Gods is the name given to a group of mainly male migrant workers trapped by circumstance in the harsh precarity of China’s rapid economic growth. ‘Sanhe’ comes from the name of one of the two dominant labour recruitment agencies in the area that have sent millions of workers to a wide range of labour-intensive industries across the Pearl River Delta. The use of ‘god’ is affectionate and carries a sense of irony and self-ridicule. It suggests that through an existence detached from material pleasure, they have attained the desired state of enlightenment described in the Buddhist scriptures. However, the philosophy most associated with the Sanhe Gods is ‘Work one day and play for three’ 干一天, 玩三天. This creed rejects the control capital exerts over labour through long-term work contracts by its followers only accepting jobs that are completed and paid for in a day.

Since the 1990s, the labour markets in Shenzhen have attracted migrant workers from all parts of China. The ready supply of labour, and the favourable tax and regulatory environment for capital, set the stage for the city’s transformation into ‘the Silicon Valley of hardware’, where everything from iPhones and Sony PlayStation consoles to Amazon Kindle e-readers are manufactured.

In 2011, the municipal government declared the establishment of the Longhua New Area 龙华新区. The district of Longhua sits in the geographic centre of Shenzhen, where a ‘people’s commune’ existed less than forty years ago. More recently, it became one of the main production bases in Shenzhen, home to telecommunications equipment giant Huawei Technologies and Taiwan’s Foxconn. The area’s industries have helped power President Xi Jinping’ 习近平 Made in China 2025 strategy, announced in 2015, which aimed to turn the country into a technology superpower. Over time, Jingle Market 景乐市场, the area tucked between Longhua Sanlian Road and Donghuan First Road in Longhua, evolved into an ‘urban village’2 — a precarious ecosystem of day-labourers, recruitment agencies, cheap hostels, noodle stalls, and Internet cafés (serving the dual purposes of entertainment and ‘accommodation’ in the form of comfortable gaming chairs that can be accessed at any time of the day or night for the minimal cost of Internet usage fees).

Workers are sent to labour-intensive industries across the Pearl River Delta
Source: Sung Ming Whang, Flickr

For the Sanhe Gods, Longhua had become a ceaseless conveyor belt that looped back on itself; it sustained their life at the margins of existence but at the same time confined them there, not providing opportunities to move away or to change their precarious state. Gathered in Longhua, the Gods created their own community, with accepted cultural norms and a particular vocabulary. They took day jobs here and there, sometimes taking longer-term jobs at factories in neighbouring provinces when desperate enough. When the monotony of working on a production line at a ‘shady factory’ 黑厂 (one with poor working conditions, which does not pay the minimum wage, and/or makes unauthorised deductions for food and accommodation from wages) became unbearable, or they had accumulated enough savings, they would quit and return to life in Longhua. This act was known as ‘pick up your bucket and run’ 提桶跑路. The bucket is one of the few possessions of a God (and in fact, most migrant workers);3 it is typically red, symbolising that it carries good fortune. In Mandarin, the tense of the phrase ‘pick up your bucket and run’ is vague. It can refer to an act in the past or the future but can also imply a present continuous occurrence — a state of suspended animation running endlessly between jobs, bucket in hand. Thus, the phrase holds conflicting connotations, simultaneously connoting ‘challenge failed’ and ‘future opportunity’.

The existence of the day-labourers in Longhua has been romanticised as a lifestyle of ‘living in the moment’, but behind the romance is an undeniably grim socio-structural reality. Typical characteristics of the Sanhe Gods include being ‘left-behind children’ (children who remained in rural regions in the care of extended family while their parents migrated to work in urban areas)4 and having only a junior high school education. Many are in debt, have sold their ID numbers for fifty to 100 yuan on the black market to people wanting to register fraudulent companies, or have obtained online fraudulent loans5 and cannot afford the fare home. The Sanhe Gods refer to this state of extreme destitution as guabi 挂逼. The characters used here literally mean ‘hung and pressed’, but they stand in as homonyms for the slang ‘dead c**t’. The term does not have the equivalent harshness of the English and is more akin to calling someone ‘povo’. With a daily wage of 100 to 200 yuan, they can only afford plain ‘guabi noodles’ or a clear broth for four yuan or water for two yuan.6 It is hard to consider any tomorrow.

China’s Plan for Tomorrow

China’s Fourteenth Five-Year Plan for socioeconomic development officially aims at ‘improving the quality and effectiveness of development’, ‘maintaining a sustained and healthy economic growth’, and the ‘acceleration of the modernisation of the industrial system’. However, for the first time since the implementation of the First Five-Year Plan in 1953 — modelled after those of the Soviet Union — the plan does not include a specific growth target for gross domestic product (GDP). Instead, it specifies that GDP and other major economic indicators should be kept in a ‘reasonable range’ and an annual growth target will be set based on the specific conditions each year. This strategy aims to ensure that overall labour productivity grows faster than GDP, prices remain stable, and the urban unemployment rate is kept under 5.5 percent. To accelerate the development of a modern industrial system and develop the real economy, the Fourteenth Five-Year Plan also sets out a strategy for boosting manufacturing power, focusing on several core industries, including aviation and high-speed rail, high-end medical equipment, and robotics.7 There is no mention of the labourers who will sustain this development.

Shenzhen’s Five-Year Plan, which puts a local spin on the national goals, provides for the city investing more than 700 billion yuan in hi-tech research and development. The city will also upgrade 100 square kilometres of industrial parks and renovate another 100 square kilometres of ‘industrial land’. Low-value-added factories will be phased out and replaced with advanced, hi-tech plants. The value of the local economy is expected to reach four trillion yuan (AU$852 billion) by 2025 — up from 2.8 trillion yuan in 2020. Shenzhen’s per capita GDP is forecast to hit 215,000 yuan in 2025 (AU$45,795).8 The plan expresses concern for people’s livelihoods, with targets for disposable income, the supply of public housing, and a reduced unemployment rate. However, the blueprints gloss over the question of who will build Shenzhen’s tomorrow.

Official data show that rural to urban migration had already started to slow before the outbreak of COVID-19 and, in 2020, migration declined for the first time. Despite the pandemic being largely contained throughout 2021, and movement across the country permitted, millions of people did not return to urban areas for work. As of the end of March 2021, there were still 2.46 million fewer migrant workers in China’s major cities than the same period in 2019. Instead, the data show that migrant workers are staying closer to home — usually within the same province. In 2021, the floating population within provinces was 251 million — an increase of more than eleven million (or 85 percent) from 2010, whereas the interprovincial floating population only increased by about thirty-nine million (45 percent) during the same period.9 This trend is undoubtedly the result of several factors but, in Shenzhen at least, government policy, financial development, and industrial reforms are key among them.

Tomorrow Follows Yesterday and Today

As Shenzhen prospered in the early 2000s, housing prices and labour costs began to rise. Its labour-intensive manufacturing industry began to close. The profit margin of the manufacturing industry centred on the production of smartphones had also shrunk. From 2009 to 2016, many factories moved production lines to other cities with lower costs of living, including Yantai, Chongqing, and Zhengzhou.10 With the exodus of manufacturing, Longhua and its human resource agencies slowly became a ‘talent transfer centre’ for the factories of the Pearl River Delta; in other words, moving, and often selling, migrant labour to factories in other locations. In 2018, Shenzhen launched its ambitious ‘Urban Village Comprehensive Management Action Plan 2018–2020’ 深圳市人民 政府办公厅关于印发深圳市‘城中村’综合治理行动计划 (2018–2020 年)的通知,11 which aimed to ‘eliminate various safety hazards’ within more than 1,600 urban villages across the city by the end of July 2020. Longhua district and the urban village around the Jingle labour market were target areas for this gentrification policy. The cheap hostels were demolished in batches, city administrators began targeting unlicensed agents offering temporary employment, and regulations were introduced limiting Internet cafes to daytime operation only.

By the time the COVID-19 pandemic hit the area, Sanhe was well on the way to being ‘harmonised by the government’ 被政府和谐的 — a satirical phrase that references former president Hu Jintao’s 胡锦涛 Harmonious Society Policy and serves as a euphemism for censorship or the destruction of things deemed undesirable or threatening to the government.12 Factories, and the migrant workers who sustain them, had already been priced out of Shenzhen. The pandemic of 2020 simply expedited the gentrification process. To prevent the spread of the virus, Internet cafes were closed and the Sanhe Gods, along with the homeless, were moved off the streets into rescue stations operated by the Longhua District Government in two middle schools. These rescue stations provided free board and lodging and access to job opportunities organised by the neighbourhood office. During the peak of the pandemic, the two rescue stations accommodated thousands of people. In early 2021, recruitment agencies such as Sanhe and Huahui 华汇, which had played such an important role in the earlier development in Shenzhen, withdrew from the Jingle market.13

Jingle is working hard to frame its ‘struggle culture’ 奋斗文化14 (the English equivalent is ‘hustle culture’) in a positive light. Evidence of the exploitation and hardship left by the Sanhe Gods on the district’s façades has been either demolished or written over with phrases such as ‘Struggle in youth, a brilliant future to come’ 奋斗青春, 精彩未来 and ‘If you don’t work hard, no-one can give you the life you want’ 你不努力, 谁也给不了你想要的生活. In the southern area, ‘fight’ 拼 has become the theme, with ‘Fight unrestrainedly, chase dreams’ 放肆拼搏, 追逐梦想 and ‘How can you win without fighting hard’ 没有拼命哪能博得喝采 emblazoned across the walls in public spaces.15 On the walls outside rental houses are ‘Management Supervision Boards’ 网格管理监督牌 that display the photos, names, and mobile phone numbers of the relevant ‘Responsible Policemen’, ‘Responsible Building Managers’, and ‘Building Fire Safety Responsible Persons’. QR codes give potential renters access to the security rating of the rental apartments according to a traffic-light system. Many properties have installed video access controls and have been fully leased to a well-known real estate company, transformed into long-term rental apartments with monthly rents that can be more than thirty times the total monthly earnings of a Sanhe God.16

Tomorrow for the Sanhe Gods

For most of the Sanhe Gods, the erasure of Jingle does not spell the end of lives spent in suspended animation at the edge of subsistence. Many cannot return to their place of origin. The ‘left behind children’ have no close family to whom they can return; the children who left family behind to seek their fortune feel that admitting their failure would be too great a loss of face and so stay away. Yet, there is now no place for them in the gentrified Jingle and surrounding areas in Shenzhen. Kunshan China Garden 昆山中花园, Wuxi Chunchao Road 无锡春潮路, and other industrial zones have become the new hubs of desperate existence. Posts on Weibo call ‘brothers’ to these new urban villages, where there are still electronics factories with production lines that require large numbers of workers and offer the possibility of a tomorrow that resembles yesterday. Those who were once Gods in Sanhe have become ‘Red Bucket Roamers’, forced to pick up their buckets and go wherever they can continue eking out a precarious, ‘hanging’ existence.