Across China, migrant workers are heading home. The annual ritual of returning to ancestral villages provides workers with what is usually their only opportunity to see family each year. Typically, the train stations and bus stations are clogged with migrant workers rushing from their last day of work to catch a ride home. Last year's Guangdong snowstorm and resulting train station mayhem is a prime example of the chaos that usually mars the scramble to leave the cities. This year, however, is not a typical year. In fact, many workers have made the journey home already. Passenger numbers at railways stations and bus stations have been up noticeably all month for departures to the provinces where migrants originate. Moreover, tickets for the days immediately preceding the break are around normal levels. To put this in perspective, it is as if Chicago O'Hare were deserted on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving because everyone had flown home for break over the preceding month--an unthinkable hypothetical.
But the hypothetical is reality here thanks to a teetering economy. Faced with unemployment in expensive, unwelcoming urban environments, many migrants are getting an early start to their annual ritual of heading back to their home provinces for Chinese New Year. Moreover, even fully employed migrant workers are being told to head home early as the demand for factory workers and construction workers is plummeting with the torpid economy. Wang Pan, a migrant laborer, was quoted in the Shanghai Daily on December 20th saying:
"In previous years, I would not stop working until the Spring Festival in January. This year I had to come back early. I am happy to reunite with my family but I am more worried about my job next year." Fortunately for the workers, manufacturers, and ultimately the government, this economic slowdown has coincided with the part of the year where migrant workers would have headed home anyways. But the Spring Festival only lasts so long.
While the early departure of migrant workers solves the problem of excess labor for now, what happens at the end of the holiday remains a looming question. Many of the migrants' jobs simply will not be there after the Chinese New Year thanks to a slowing economy. Some migrants are aware of this yet may return to the cities regardless. Others may decide to stay and find work in their home villages and not endure the trek back to the cities.
But both scenarios present massive problems for the country. With the labor-intensive export economy slowing, many of the jobs in the cities will vanish over the next month. This means additional financial duress for the migrant population that already struggles to make ends meet in inhospitable cities. For those who remain in the countryside, the situation is not much better. The rural economies of the villages where the migrants call home are as slow if not slower than the urban economies. Indeed, the backward state of China's rural economy is precisely why the migrants left their villages in the first place. While there are newspaper reports of migrants attempting to return to farming or try their hand at starting a business in the countryside, their prospects are bleak. Simply put, there aren't jobs in the cities or countryside for the migrant workers now returning home.
The government has taken notice. According to the New York Times article published on January 1st, "in Sichuan and other interior provinces, municipal officials are desperately searching for ways to provide jobs for millions of out-of-work migrant laborers whose family no longer need them for farming." Additionally, the provinces of Hubei, Yunnan, Jiangxi, and Anhui (where many of China's migrants originate from) are holding job fairs for returned workers from the Eastern cities. These efforts are, however, likely to be only a drop in the bucket in comparison to the surge of unemployed migrant workers returning home.
Having huge numbers of unemployed workers in the cities or countryside could lead to social unrest. According to a leading demographer at Shanghai's Fudan University, seeing just how many unemployed workers come back to the cities upon the conclusion of the holiday will reveal the extent of China's problem. He, along with many government officials, is waiting on baited breath to see just how many workers return and can be absorbed in the struggling urban economies. A large number of unemployed returnees could mean immediate and massive social unrest and discontent in the cities. A slow trickle on the other hand, could mean a powder keg of anger and underemployment in the rural provinces. Thus seeing what happens in early February will be indicative of the financial slowdown's effect on the livelihoods of migrant workers and the social fabric of the entire nation. As a figure emerges in early February, he says, the picture will become clearer as to just how destabilizing the economic crisis will be for China.
But as Chinese academics and policy-makers hold their breath until after the Spring Festival, the potential for discontent on a massive scale brews in China's hinterland by the day, waiting to return to urban climes.