Essay: Fantasies of Freedom

ILLUSTRATION FOR TIME BY EDEL RODRIGUEZ

What struck me most about the four farmers who showed up at TIME's Beijing bureau back in 2001 was that they were wearing new shirts. With callused hands and dirt under their fingernails, these men were trying to blend in with the well-dressed crowds in China's capital. But one look and you could tell they were poor peasants in unfamiliar city clothes. Their shirts all had identical shirt-box creases. One peasant, an apple grower named Liang Yumin, tugged at his neck throughout our conversation, fingering the piece of cardboard still tucked under his collar.

I had met these...

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