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China’s great migration wrenched back by crisis

Posted by Author on December 31, 2008

By Simon Rabinovitch, via Reuters, Tue Dec 30, 2008 –

CHENGDU
, China, Dec 30 (Reuters) – The biggest migration in human history has gone into reverse.

China’s ocean of blue-collar workers is streaming back to the country’s 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 China’s 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 family’s 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 won’t 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.

“MENACE TO STABILITY”

Over the past three decades, about 130 million people have left China’s countryside for the smokestacks, assembly lines and construction sites of cities.

That migration, described as the world’s biggest ever by the United Nations, has underpinned the country’s heady growth and also given its poorest citizens a share of the spoils, as urban residents’ incomes are much higher than farmers’.

Known as China’s “floating population”, labourers rarely settle permanently where they work — effectively prohibited from doing so by residency rules — and return in droves to their hometowns for the Chinese lunar new year. …… (more details from Reuters)

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