Going to the Country: Unemployed Chinese Migrant Workers Return Home

04/09/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In the world's biggest annual migration every Chinese New Year over one hundred million internal migrants take a break from their jobs and studies in China's swelling cities to return to their families in the countryside. In 2008, snowstorms disrupted travel across China, leaving tens of millions stranded at train and bus stations. The situation was deemed so serious that Premier Wen Jiaobao himself descended on snowbound train stations, megaphone in hand, to personally apologize for the delays. This is equivalent to Nancy Pelosi arriving at Chicago's O'Hare Airport during the Thanksgiving travel crunch to apologize to passengers for weather delays.

The willingness of top PRC leaders to apologize for delays largely beyond their control contrasts with George Bush's failure to apologize for the government's failure of initiative during Hurricane Katrina. Premier Wen's response demonstrates not only the importance of the holiday and its accompanying migration, but also an authoritarian hypersensitivity to any potential flashpoint from which resentment against the state could erupt.

This year, it is not the weather but the economy that has stranded unfortunate travelers. Many migrant workers went home early for the Chinese New Year holiday (approximately 10% are believed to have returned home by the end of December) and may stay home for fear that there will be no jobs if they return. Additionally, a recent survey by China's Ministry of Agriculture suggests that approximately 20 million of China's 130 million migrant workers are currently unemployed.

It should not be surprising that these workers would be the first group in China to feel the impact of the global economic downturn. Migrant workers tend to find employment in export-driven manufacturing which is sensitive to demand in sagging foreign markets. They are easy to lay off because they often work informally and lack the protections offered by China's new labor law. Their families and legal residences generally remain in the countryside, and China's hukou system of residence permits means that migrant workers are not entitled to social services in the urban areas where they work. If finding work in urban areas becomes difficult or impossible, it is logical that they would return to their rural homes where they can be with their families and are in a better position to receive healthcare, education for their children, and other assistance from the state.

Although laughably optimistic in most of the world, a growth rate of 8% has traditionally been seen as necessary to generate enough new jobs and income to stave off social unrest in China. Currently, however, this figure has little more to recommend it than the fact that Chinese consider it a lucky number. Because of the progress, China's economy has made over the past thirty years and the country's changing demographics many economists believe China needs only a 6% growth rate to maintain stability and that this is likely to be achieved. Nevertheless, falling below the 8% goal could undermine Chinese confidence in a government that has staked its reputation on economic competence.

Political scientists commonly argue that authoritarian regimes are more sensitive to concerns of urban residents because protests are easier to organize and more likely to get out of hand in denser urban areas. From this point of view, the return of migrant workers to their rural homes could be a boon for the Chinese state. Unemployed workers who might have organized if they had stayed clustered together around their former employers are less likely to do so if separated from each other in their remote rural communities. The return of migrants to the countryside may be a safety valve for dissatisfaction and a blessing to the Chinese Communist Party.

And yet, it may prove a mixed blessing. Not all migrants are from rural areas and those who return to cities may be more likely to stir up trouble, especially if they are natives of China's distressed rustbelt. Remittances from migrant workers have played a large part in raising the standard of living in rural areas and unemployed workers may return just in time to find the situation in the countryside deteriorating. This could be compounded by the fact that migrant workers, like migrants anywhere, sometimes cluster together, finding work through others from their home regions. The closure of even one factory could result in a large number of unemployed migrants concentrated in a small rural community. Even in good times these workers have trouble receiving their wages. Now they are likely to find it impossible to collect the pay they are owed by shuttered factories in distant cities.

Despite these problems, faith in the government apparently remains high. However, protests in China, or as they are sometimes known in officialdom, "mass incidents," appear to have been on the rise for much of the past decade, and most of these protests likely occurred in rural areas. Returned migrants might contribute to rural unrest as much as they take pressure off urban areas. Although China watchers tend to look for a repeat of urban protest such as the Tiananmen Incident or Poland's Solidarity Movement, throughout Chinese history it was often rural rebellions that lead to the downfall of dynasties. Indeed the Communists themselves came to power only after Mao showed them how to build a base among the peasantry. If the economic downturn does prove to be problematic for China's leadership, we should not be too surprised if history repeats itself.

In a future entry, I will address an unlikely group of unemployed that the Chinese state is sending out into the countryside -- university graduates.