Zhongmu County, China: The parched farmlands of central China hold no future for Li Honglin, but she is trapped there until word comes from a clothing factory far away on the coast where she used to work.
Li’s boss promised to call her back to her job as a sewing machinist when the factory resumes full production. It’s not clear when that might happen, though, as China’s garment exports have been decimated by the economic downturn and orders are thin.
“Almost all my friends have already gone back to the big cities, but I’m not rushing out. You need to have a job to live in the city. It’s too expensive to get by without one,” she said.
Li’s caution sets her apart from the masses of rural Chinese who are still thronging to the country’s industrial jungle despite bleak employment prospects, fuelling official fears that city streets could turn into breeding grounds for disappointed, disgruntled young men.
Hoping to keep unemployed migrants in the countryside at the end of their visits home for the Lunar New Year holiday, the government has offered them funds and training to start their own businesses.
Despite the incentives, tens of millions left their family plots of hardscrabble land to seek riches, or at least a decent wage, in factories and on construction sites. Many have run square into the hard realities of the global financial crisis.
“It’s no good. I had found work by this time last year, but I’ve had no opportunities, nothing, so far this year,” said Zhao Xichang, standing by a hand-painted sign that advertised his skills as a driver at a job market in Zhengzhou.
Long lines of migrants, mainly men in rumpled suits, snaked down the street just a few minutes’ walk from the train station, each with a sign like Zhao’s. There were chefs and drivers, electricians and builders, plumbers and handymen.
Rumours spread about where there might be more work. One man said Beijing. Another scoffed, saying he had left the capital because its economy had turned sour.
“People here barely have enough to eat. And it’s going to be bad for society if the situation doesn’t improve,” Zhao said. Not that there would be protests, just unhappiness, he quickly added.
About 20 million rural migrants have lost work as the nation’s economy has slowed, a senior official said this month. Some economists think that number may double.
“I could go back to my farm, but there’s really nothing to do there. The wheat is already planted and it’s another three months before the harvest,” Zhao said.
Henan is a bellwether province for the country’s estimated 130 million migrants, with roughly one in every six coming from its yellow soil. The provincial government has been at the forefront of crafting plans to help those down on their luck.
“This is a crucial period. If they can go out and find a job in the next month, they should do well for the rest of the year. If not, it will be more difficult,” said Liu Tao, deputy head of the Henan labour and social security department.
The province’s approach has been two-pronged: providing more information to migrants about where there are urban jobs to be found, while also encouraging them to start their own, largely agricultural businesses in the countryside.
The vast majority of Henan’s migrants, up to 80%, have opted to shoot for city employment and it is too early to judge whether those who end up empty-handed will return to the countryside, Liu said.
Off the land
Four months without rain have dried out Henan’s wheat and vegetable crops, the severe drought underscoring why many migrants dismiss farming as a viable alternative to factory work.
China’s rural residents had per-capita incomes of 4,761 yuan last year, 3.3 times less than their urban counterparts. That gap steadily widened during the country’s past decade of scorching growth, from 2.5 times in 1997.
“How could there be social instability here? That would mean fighting with my own family,” Li said.