As China boomed, about 200 men set out from the rural idyll of Shuangxi, Hunan Province, to build its infrastructure and skyscrapers. Now, lung disease from dust has killed one-quarter of them and 100 more are waiting to die.
Back home amid rice paddies and forested hills, Xu Zuoqing walks outside, his face contorting in pain from the effort.
“It’s like my lungs are being choked. My chest feels so tight,” said the 44-year-old, who worked on construction sites for about 15 years. “I just wish I could die comfortably... Well, I wish I didn’t have to die.”
China’s roaring growth has been built on a huge supply of cheap migrant laborers from the countryside.
However, safety standards are poorly enforced and experts say millions of those workers are now ill with pneumoconiosis, the incurable lung disease that has crippled Xu.
Official statistics say China has had 676,541 cases of pneumoconiosis, but campaigners say the actual total could be as high as 6 million.
One-fifth of the recorded victims have already died.
Pneumoconiosis often lies undetected for years, so that workers prolong their exposure to dust building up in their lungs until they find it agonizing to work, walk or even breathe.
Poor rural families lose their breadwinner and are left with hefty bills for medical care that can at best only dull the pain. The Chinese government only covers basic healthcare and companies rarely pay compensation.
“You can delay the progress of the disease through certain drugs and treatments, but ... it is basically a death sentence,” said Geoff Crothall, spokesman for Hong Kong-based advocacy group China Labour Bulletin.
In Shuangxi, a village of several hundred people, cases of illness are steadily becoming fatalities.
There is the mother who lost four of her five sons, the two brothers who died and the one so wracked by pain that he killed himself with an overdose of medicine last month.
Xu’s brother passed away in February, leaving his children to be raised by their grandmother.
Xu worries about his own little ones, currently 10 and 12.
“I hope they finish school,” he said. “I hope they grow up fast.”
The preferred destination for the men of Shuangxi was the boom town of Shenzhen where they worked drilling and blasting holes on construction sites, enveloping themselves in dust with only flimsy face masks for protection.
It was not until the late 2000s that the hazards began to emerge. One by one they grew too weak to work and the first of the sick died.
However, they are among the better-off victims.
In 2009, the men took the bold step of returning to Shenzhen to demand compensation, holding sit-ins that gained public sympathy.
After months of bargaining, many received between 70,000 yuan and 130,000 yuan (between US$11,000 and US$21,000) from the government, while a handful with proper records got up to 290,000 yuan from a workers’ insurance scheme.
However, nationwide, only an estimated 10 percent to 20 percent of pneumoconiosis victims can secure payouts.
For most, by the time their illness becomes apparent, they have lost any paperwork proving their employment or the companies have closed, or changed hands, or simply deny liability.
Even for those who succeed, compensation quickly dwindles as they pay for medicine, oxygen machines, injections and emergency hospital stays.