China's economic slump

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MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman. This is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH Boston. Chinese are celebrating the Lunar New Year this week. The Year of the Ox began yesterday, but there's little to be bullish about in China. The nation's economy is in slow-down mode and as many as 10 million Chinese have lost their jobs. Many migrant workers are home for the New Year. Their remittances often sustain the rural economy, but these migrant workers could have trouble finding jobs when they return to the cities. The World's Mary Kay Magistad checks on their mood in Meishan, in the southwestern province of Sichuan.

MARY KAY MAGISTAD: This town should be feeling the pinch of the economic slow-down. The Sichuan government says more than 80,000 laid-off migrant workers have returned here just in the past couple of months. But take a stroll down the streets and you'll see shops are crowded and the mood is lively. Liquor store owner Wong Jung-Xion says business have never been better. He says, �Sichuanese like their liquor. Migrant workers are home for the holidays and they've got money to spend.� If Wong is worried about what happens once the holiday is over, the money runs out and the migrant workers can't find new jobs, he doesn't say. At a nearby bus station, a bus arrives every few minutes with returning migrant workers from all over China. One is a construction worker named Jong. He had a job in the east coast province of Guangzhou -- until the work dried up. Still, Jong says, he's not too worried about the economy. He plans to stay home a little longer for the New Year's festivities, then he hopes to find a job. If he can't, well, he says, �We're farmers. We'll always have something to do.� Perhaps, but many Chinese villages depend on the money they get from migrant workers to pull them above the poverty line. In a nearby small town, village leader Juadrin Chin voices his concerns. He says about 1 in 3 people in his village, Shergong, is a migrant worker, and in good times they bring more than $1 million dollars a year into the village.

JUADRIN-CHIN: We need these migrant workers because it's impossible to support your family just by growing crops. But now the economy's bad, factories are shutting down, and a lot of migrant workers from here won't have jobs to go back to.

MAGISTAD: Still, people in Shergong don't seem especially worried. This crowd has gathered to watch a crew haul in fish from the village reservoir. The villagers say, �migrant workers always go from job to job. They'll just find new ones after the holiday.� Farther down the dirt road, I meet two brothers and a sister on a shiny red motorcycle. All are migrant workers. Two have lost their jobs. I ask them what they'll do now. One says, �I guess we'll just hang out here a little longer. After all, we're young. We'll find work.� They drive off, laughing. It doesn't seem to have sunk in that there may not be work to find. It has sunk in with the Chinese government. Last quarter's economic growth was basically flat compared to the previous quarter. China's leaders have repeatedly expressed concern about the potential for social unrest. They hear a ticking clock, and it sounds like this. These villagers in another town are complaining about their local leaders. The villagers say, �They're bad. They're corrupt. They get rich by charging us all kinds of fines and they keep the money that should go to us.� That kind of discontent is rife in many villages in China. What's kept it in check so far is the money coming in from migrant workers and the belief that the Central government will eventually set things right. Actually, the Central government has limited time to create millions of jobs -- not only for the 10 million laid-off migrant workers, but also for 7 million new college graduates. The government is almost certain to fall short. China's leaders are hoping that the goodwill many people have toward them will hold until the economy catches a second wind. For The World, I'm Mary Kay Magistad, Meishan, Sichuan province, China.