QINGHE, China — When he left this dusty, poor village in China’s interior, Xie Ruixue was a 15-year-old farm kid full of ambition, lured by the promise of good wages and excitement in China’s booming factory towns hundreds of miles to the southeast.
For a decade, he made it work. He grabbed a little piece of the modern Chinese Dream, leaving behind the farm and its antiquities, adapting to modern, big-city life and working enough hours to earn more than his parents ever had. The work was tough, sometimes boring, but he built a savings and a social life. He moved from factory to factory over the years, finally settling in for a five-year stint with a shoe-making company in Dongguan, in the heart of China’s manufacturing hub, the Pearl River Delta.
Last year things started to go sour. Inflation took hold. Prices went up, and as factory export orders slowed, so did Xie’s wages. By autumn, he was earning less than 1,000 yuan ($140) a month. Facing higher rent and feeling he could no longer save any money, he quit the factory and returned to Sichuan. Friends and family assured him new factories were setting up in nearby Chengdu and he could find a job close to home where costs are lower. He had good reason to trust their guidance: this word-of-mouth recruiting network was how he and millions of China’s migrant workers have found lucrative work in the past.
But the global economic crisis took firm hold in the intervening weeks. Ten years after abandoning village life, Xie finds himself back on the farm, shuffling about with friends to play mahjong, without a job or any immediate prospects. Though he’s street-smart and citified after spending nearly half his life just across the border from Hong Kong and Macao, he wouldn’t mind farming for a living if he had to. Yet he left so young he never learned how to properly work the land.
“I just want to find a job and see what happens next,” he says.
Across Jintang County, it’s a story replayed again and again. Local media say nearly 20,000 migrant workers have returned to this county jobless in recent months. This poverty-stricken area’s biggest export for decades has been labor sent to man the factory lines in Guangdong Province, accounting for tens of thousands of the country’s estimated 130 million migrant workers — most former farmers turned laborers.
It’s a nationwide problem drawing attention at the highest levels. On Feb. 2, officials in Beijing said 20 million of China’s migrant works lost their jobs in recent months amid the impact of the global financial crisis and lower demand for Chinese exports.
China’s internal migrants have been the foot soldiers in its economic rise, powering the manufacturing sector that propelled this country in a generation to become the world’s third-largest economy. Because of an old household registration system tying most people to the place they are born, migrants take great personal risk to move for work, usually without health care or education benefits and up until recently, without basic labor rights. For many, the gamble has paid off. Newly built two-story farmhouses dotting the landscape across Jintang County are testament to the Pearl River Delta factory wealth that returned here.
But with millions of migrants losing work and facing bleak prospects, questions remain about how China’s government will continue to hold out promises of improved living standards for its poorest citizens in the face of the global downturn.
In a February press conference discussing the millions of migrant jobs lost, Chen Xiwen, head of the government agency in charge of rural employment policies, said rural unemployment and lack of prospects for migrants could pose serious problems to social stability. Already, reports have surfaced from the restless countryside of more drinking, gambling, fighting and more dissatisfaction with government leaders. The central government is proposing vocational training and other measures for the unemployed and making it clear it’s a critical issue.
Back in the village, Xie stuffs his hands into the pockets of his dark denim jeans, a coordinated jacket open to reveal his patterned knock-off Dolce & Gabbana sweater, all standing in stark contrast to the farmers and fields surrounding him. With his spiky hair and city attitude, Xie looks like he time-traveled here, back 50 years to a very different China.
“This time the situation is different,” he explains. “I’m very worried because I don’t have any education. There are many college graduates out there without jobs and I only graduated from middle school.”