By ANDREW JACOBS, New York Times, 23/02/2009
TANJIA, China — Tan Tianying might not look like a troublemaker, but she and millions of other workers like her have government leaders fretting about the country’s stability.
A shy, delicately built seamstress who makes aprons and coveralls in Guangzhou, Ms. Tan, 24, is part of an army of migrants, 130 million strong, who have flocked to cities for jobs, but whose prospects for continued employment are increasingly dim.
As the global economic crisis deepens and the demand for Chinese exports slackens, manufacturing jobs in the Pearl River Delta and all along the once-booming coast are disappearing at a stunning pace. Over the last few months, more than 20 million migrant workers have been cast into the ranks of the unemployed, depriving impoverished towns like Tanjia of the much-needed income the workers sent home.
Since December, hundreds of employees at Ms. Tan’s uniform factory have been let go and wages have been cut by a third as orders from the United States dry up. Last year, 2,400 factories in and around Guangzhou closed.
“I hope I still have a job,” Ms. Tan said this month, a few hours before leaving Tanjia on a train for the 10-hour ride that in recent years has carried away most of the town’s working-age residents. “I don’t want to go back to being a poor farmer.”
In a nation obsessed with social harmony, the well-being of China’s mobile work force has become the top priority for a government that has long seen its fortunes tied to those of the country’s 800 million rural dwellers. Mao’s revolution, after all, was fueled by embittered peasants, and it has not gone unnoticed in Beijing that decades of heady growth has fed a widening gap between urban residents and those who live in the rural interior.
Although the government has not released updated information about rural unrest, officials have been strategizing about how best to keep large protests and riots from spreading, should the dispossessed grow unruly.
This week, more than 3,000 public security directors from across the country are gathering in the capital to learn how to neutralize rallies and strikes before they blossom into so-called mass incidents. At a meeting of the Chinese cabinet last month, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao told government leaders they should prepare for rough times ahead. “The country’s employment situation is extremely grim,” he said.
To ameliorate the hardship of idled migrants, the central government has announced a series of initiatives that include vocational training, an expansion of rural health care and crop subsidies to ensure that those who return to the land can make a living despite a slump in agricultural prices. A $585 billion stimulus package introduced in November, much of it weighted toward labor-intensive construction projects, is also expected to absorb some of the newly unemployed.
But here in Tanjia and the surrounding countryside of northeast Hunan Province, most people say they have yet to see much in the way of government largess. As the Lunar New Year came to an end two weeks ago, many migrants who had come home for the holidays were anxious to return south, where they hoped to reclaim their old jobs or find new ones.
About 40 percent of the town’s 2,000 residents work outside the province, and their remittances have been a lifeline for the children and elderly people who remain behind. Much of that money has been spent on motorcycles, high school educations and new homes, some trimmed with Corinthian columns and ceramic dragons, that are the brick-and-mortar embodiment of this newfound prosperity.
Ms. Tan’s family home, like those of her neighbors, is a work in progress. Since 2005, her mother, father and brother, all migrant workers, have poured $15,000 into the two-story house, but they still need another $9,000 for appliances, fixtures and a white tiled facade. “We have no savings,” said her father, Tan Liangsheng, 52, a haggard-looking man who recently lost his job as a construction worker. “All our hard work and bitterness is invested in this house.”
Just behind him sat the mud-brick structure where the extended Tan clan used to live.
In some ways, Tanjia’s residents are luckier than most. Unlike China’s drought-stricken north and its chronically arid west, Hunan Province is well watered and blessed with a temperate climate that allows farmers to grow food much of the year.
Still, with 64 million people squeezed into an area the size of Kansas, most people make do with tiny plots of land; in Tanjia the average size is a tenth of an acre. “Maybe we won’t starve to death, but life would become very difficult if everyone came back home,” said Long Feng, 29, who works at a car repair shop in Shenzhen, not far from the Hong Kong border.
In Zhuzhou, the nearest city of any consequence, government officials are not very concerned about a surge in jobless farmers.
Chen Shuxian, director of Zhuzhou’s employment center, said he was more worried about the 3.7 million people who live in and around his booming city, people who have become accustomed to relatively comfortable lives. “They have cellphone bills and rent to pay,” he said. “The migrants don’t have a lot of expectations and they can always fall back on the land and their family savings.”
Such sentiments are common in China, where rural laborers are often viewed as dime-a-dozen workhorses capable of enduring enormous hardship. He Xuefeng, a professor who studies rural life, said many manufacturers believed the most productive workers were spent by 40.
“As workers grow older, they can’t work as quickly or accurately, so they are naturally eliminated,” said Mr. He, who teaches at Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Hubei Province. “The financial crisis will simply speed up that process by two or three years and force them to return home earlier.”
After he lost his job at a glass factory in Guangzhou last year, Wang Liming, 39, returned to his home on the outskirts of Zhuzhou thinking he could find employment nearby. Things turned more dire after his wife lost her job just before the New Year festivities.
He acknowledged that there was work to be had in Zhuzhou, but those jobs generally pay less than $100 a month, about half what a semiskilled assembly line position pays in Guangzhou.
“I couldn’t even afford my daughter’s high school tuition on that kind of salary,” he said, standing in front of his home, a half-built box that lacks windows and a refrigerator.
A gruff, chain-smoking man, Mr. Wang said the decade he spent in the south turned him off to agricultural work. “I hate working the fields,” he said as his neighbors nodded in agreement. Even if they wanted to, he and his fellow villagers could not make much money from farming: some of the best patches of land have been swallowed up by Zhuzhou’s rapid development, including the electric generating plant that dominates the view from his front door.
Asked about his plans, Mr. Wang shook his head, glanced at his cellphone and said he was waiting for friends in Guangzhou to call him about a job. “I’m just hoping the phone rings,” he said.