28 October 2016
Tens of millions of China's migrant workers return home for the Lunar New Year each year. Photo:
Tens of millions of China's migrant workers return home for the Lunar New Year each year. Photo:

Migrant workers in China are going home and may stay there

Every year, in the world’s biggest annual migration, tens of millions of China’s 246 million migrant workers go home to the countryside to celebrate the Lunar New Year.

Most return to work after the holidays. This year, however, there is cause for concern.

Although the festival doesn’t begin until Feb. 8, millions of workers — especially in the construction and electrical appliance industries — have already returned home, because of slowing growth in the economy.

For local governments across China, this raises a tough question, Bloomberg columnist Adam Minter wrote.

What happens if these laborers don’t go back to work after the holiday?

In early 2009, 20 million unemployed migrants returned home for the holidays in the wake of the global financial crisis, raising fears of social unrest.

Labor riots did, in fact, take place. But most of the unemployed appear to have gone back to work when Beijing’s monster economic stimulus kicked in later that year.

This time is notably different. Prospects for a 2009-style stimulus are slim.

More important, China is on the cusp of a long-term trend of reverse migration back to the countryside, Minter wrote.

This week, the National Bureau of Statistics reported that the migrant population dropped by 5.68 million last year — its first decline in about three decades.

Some of that decline is simple demographics and parallels China’s rapidly shrinking labor force.

But much of it is due to a slump in the labor-intensive manufacturing sector and a steady improvement in rural economies.

Despite a long-term commitment to urbanization (in 1980, China was 19.6 percent urbanized; today, the figure is more than 50 percent), the government has recently directed more attention and money to rural development projects, ranging from infrastructure improvement to credit support for the country’s hundreds of millions of farmers.

This year, rural per capita income is expected to exceed 10,000 yuan (US$1,530) a year for the first time, surpassing urban income growth for the fifth straight year.

But just as economics was never the sole reason for moving to the city, many migrants also have non-economic motives for moving back home, including a desire to care for aging parents left behind and a hunger for uncontaminated food.

“The migrant workers are rooted in the countryside,” Yang Tuan, a prominent sociologist at the China Academy of Social Science, was quoted as saying.

“They have feelings for the land.” 

The trend toward reverse migration should help alleviate the overcrowding in China’s biggest cities and the sharp income disparity between rural and urban areas.

Returning migrants tend to be more worldly and wealthy than when they left, as well as more entrepreneurial, Minter wrote.

The number of people starting new businesses in rural China grew 3.1 percent, year over year, in the first half of last year. In total, about 2 million migrants have returned home to start businesses.

That trend appears to be accelerating: Sichuan province, China’s leading source of migrant labor, reports that more than 40,000 of its returned migrants have attempted to start businesses over the past year.

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