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In China, out-of-work migrants destabilizing

Posted by Author on January 24, 2009

Anna Mehler Paperny, Chronicle Foreign Service, the San Francisco Chronicle, Friday, January 23, 2009-

On a recent Sunday morning, the scene on the K290 train heading west from Shanghai to China’s rural heartland was one of chaos.

The hard-seat cars teemed with passengers, many of them migrant workers fighting to place their baggage in overhead compartments or find space to sit in the aisles.

Chun yun, or spring festival transport, is the world’s largest human migration, involving hundreds of millions of people annually traveling home before the Lunar New Year. But this year, migrants returning home before the Year of the Ox begins Monday got an early start after hundreds of thousands of workers lost their city jobs.

Work drying up

“There is no work,” said Yang Nan, who returned to Sichuan province last month with her husband, Gou Zong Hai, and their 10-month-old daughter, Zhao Yin, after working in the eastern city of Wuxi. The occasional construction work that Gou relied on to feed the family dried up during an economic crisis that is closing factories throughout China’s industrial heartland.

As global recession slows demand for cheap consumer goods – whose export has fueled China’s breakneck economic growth for nearly three decades – the government is facing waves of factory closures and layoffs. In 2008, 670,000 small and medium-size businesses closed, laying off an estimated 10 million people, mostly migrant workers, according to the ministry of human resources and social security.

The government of agricultural Henan province announced that 3.7 million jobless migrants recently returned. In industrial Guangdong province, by contrast, more than 600,000 migrants have left for home, and the provincial governor says another 1 million could leave in coming months as more businesses close or lay off employees.

Some observers are worried that an army of unemployed workers could spark widespread social unrest.

Destabilizing force

“If these people organize, it could be quite different than what happened in ’89,” said Melissa Thomas, a partner in the Shanghai office of Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, an international law firm that advises foreign companies doing business in China, referring to the pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square that left as many as 3,000 dead or injured. “These are people who feel they have nothing to lose, because there’s nothing for them. The government is really aware of that.” …… (more details from the San Francisco Chronicle)

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