Crisis wrenches back Chinas great migration

Simon Rabinovitch | Updated: Dec 31 2008, 06:35am hrs
The biggest migration in human history has gone into reverse. Chinas ocean of blue-collar workers is streaming back to the countrys farming hinterland, bringing thwarted aspirations and rising discontent in tow as their city jobs, their paths out of poverty, fall victim to the global economic crisis.

Train K192 is a daily conduit of the reversing flow. Every afternoon it pulls into Chengdu, capital of populous Sichuan province, after a 31-hour trip from Guangzhou, centre of Chinas once-thriving export heartland. Hundreds of weary passengers, some of whom stand through the entire journey because seats are sold out, straggle into the grey light of the Chengdu winter and an uncertain future.

Lots of factories have closed. Mine shut about three months ago. There was nothing to do, so I came home, said Wu Hao, 21, sporting a stylish striped sweater and a sleek metal suitcase.

After a year spent making circuit boards in Guangzhou, he was heading back to his familys patch of farmland, a full month before the Chinese new year when he would usually visit home.

Officials estimate that more than 10 million migrant labourers have already returned to the countryside as thousands of companies have been dragged under by weak global demand for everything from clothes to cars. The government, always concerned about social instability, is now on high alert, fearful of the consequences of a huge mass of jobless, disappointed, rootless young men.

Beijing has urged firms to avoid cutting jobs despite falling profits, and many bosses have obliged by retaining workers but giving them unpaid leave. Sales were really bad and the boss just kept giving us holidays. We had 15 days off last month, said Tan Jun, who also clambered off train K192 in Chengdu. Next year I wont go back. With an impish smile, Tan looked more like a student than the factory hand he had been for a drug company in Dongguan, an industrial city next to Guangzhou.

Over the past three decades, about 130 million people have left Chinas countryside for the smokestacks, assembly lines and construction sites of cities. That migration, described as the worlds biggest ever by the United Nations, has underpinned the countrys heady growth and also given its poorest citizens a share of the spoils, as urban residents incomes are much higher than farmers.

Known as Chinas floating population, labourers rarely settle permanently where they work effectively prohibited from doing so by residency rulesand return in droves to their hometowns for the Chinese lunar new year.

State media have put the best possible gloss on the in-bound tide of migrants under way: they are simply returning home early, one month ahead of the Year of the Ox which begins on January 26.

But China is heading into uncharted territory and the picture could deteriorate quickly. Many economists forecast growth next year of less than 7.5 %, the countrys lowest since 1990 and a level that would swell the ranks of the jobless.

The redistribution of wealth through theft and robbery could dramatically increase and menaces to social stability will grow, Zhou Tianyong, a leading Communist Party scholar, wrote this month in a newspaper issued by a state think-tank.

Workers and officials alike hope the migration reversal is only temporary, but the numbers are too vast to ignore. The social security ministry says 10 percent of all migrants have already gone back to the countryside.