Page last updated at 11:39 GMT, Monday, 15 June 2009 12:39 UK

Part 2: The mathematics of migrant labour

Part 1: Heading out into the real China Part 2: The mathematics of Chinese labour Part 3: China's mass consumer culture Part 4: Change from 60 years of Communism Part 5: The chill of China's economic crisis Part 7: The multiple realities of China Part 6: In Pictures: A trip through China's crisis

By Paul Mason
Reporting for BBC Newsnight and World News America

The Helan Shan mountains in north central China tower like a great, grey wall, almost vertical.

Hai Sheng-jin
Hai Sheng-jin owns land, but also works as a day labourer

The plain below stretches with a Zen-like flatness. It is dry, grey and littered with rocks.

Almost nothing grows within two miles (3km) of the mountain range except the green saplings the Chinese government has planted there to prevent the soil from blowing away.

In the distance the eerie, honey-coloured stone beehives of the Western Shan tombs sit like alien mausoleums - 1,000 years old.

This is a boom-town for the dead.

Recently China's nouveau-riche have taken to having themselves buried here too, under small, stone cairns and then, inevitably in market-frenzied China, in dedicated commercial cemeteries.

The Feng Shui (I kid you not) is good for the dead here. Back to the mountain, feet towards the Yellow River, whose clay-coloured water snakes across the plain.

Making ends meet

For the living, the Feng Shui is not so good, nor the karma, nor the economics.

I meet Hai Sheng-jin and his work-team scraping at a field of bamboo seedlings with rusty hoes. There are 10 of them - day labourers.

Let me tell you about the mathematics of day labour.

Mr Hai owns seven mu of land - that is just over one acre.

When he harvests his rice and corn he will make £170 ($279) and that is his annual income, unless he works on somebody else's land.

So he comes here when there is work , to do 10 hours a day for what, at first, sounds like a pretty decent £5 ($8) a day.

But his village is 40 miles away. And here is the snag - because the land is so dry, all his water comes through concrete irrigation ditches off the Yellow River at a cost of £10 ($16) an hour, per mu.

He has seven mu remember.

So it will take Mr Hai and his son seven days to earn the money.

Read Paul Mason's Idle Scrawl blog

Paul Mason's journey across China will be broadcast in two parts on Newsnight on Tuesday 16 and Wednesday 17 June 2009 at 10.30BST on BBC Two, and then available to watch on the Newsnight website.

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