Saturday, February 21, 2009

Resilient Migrants

While southern China has had its share of issues since the Chinese New Year, northern China has, so far, been able to avoid any serious problems with restless migrants.

From Newsweek:

Over the last 30 years, as its economy has raced ahead, China has witnessed the world's largest internal migration, with some 250 million farmers and others abandoning its impoverished heartland in search of factory work and a better life on the coast. Now, as the economy slows—exports for January plunged 17.5 percent compared to the same month last year—many of those factories (including nearly half of the toymakers in the Pearl River Delta) have shut down, and unemployment is thought to have hit 10 percent. That's sending threatening waves throughout Chinese society. Among the most worrisome effects: some 20 million migrant workers have returned home, flooding areas where able-bodied youngsters were recently a rarity.

Perhaps hardest hit is hardscrabble Henan Province, whose population is thought to account for a full 10 percent of China's newly jobless. Local officials say some 2 million unemployed workers (out of a total population of 94 million) came home to stay during late January's Chinese New Year holiday, the traditional time for paying off—and laying off—workers. The real number is probably much higher, and it's sure to grow further as layoffs mount. Already it's producing great anxiety among Chinese officials, who have begun warning of civil unrest in unusually stark terms. The fear is that jobless workers—many of them young men—will band together and turn to violence or crime.

Avoiding those dangers by reabsorbing and redirecting these masses won't be easy. But if Henan is a guide, local governments are off to a good start, and may even manage to turn the infusion of new (or returning) blood to their advantage. Henan officials are working on a two-track strategy: first, finding jobs for as many returnees as possible, which generally means reexporting them by posting ads and hosting recruiters from elsewhere. Second, Henan is looking for ways to retain the best-qualified returnees in order to boost the province's depleted workforce and develop new businesses.

Read On
Even those who are not getting any cut of these infrastructure projects or training and are struggling to find anything to do with themselves are not anywhere near a "tipping point."

From Reuters:

ZHENGZHOU, China (Reuters) - Whatever the uncertainties as jobs vanish for China's migrant workers, two things seem clear: they will become neither rebels nor farmers.

Officials estimate that 20 million rural migrants are already out of work, fuelling fears that idle, frustrated young men will turn to protest and sow instability that could throw China's economy badly off course.

The global financial crisis has sent Chinese growth tumbling to below 8 percent, a level widely regarded as a minimum for China to create enough jobs for those entering the workforce.

A key plank of the government's strategy to mitigate the threats posed by job losses has been to encourage the unemployed to return to the countryside, where incomes are low but most have a piece of land to call their own and keep themselves fed.

A few weeks into peak job-hunting season after Chinese New Year, the back-to-the-farm plan has come up short. But Beijing's protest nightmare is not becoming a reality.

Read On
These articles show to me just how resilient a lot of these laborers really are. After being cut off from their "ticket out of poverty" (working in factories), they just get on with life and keep going.

I'm curious to see how long this grace period of "getting on with life in a difficult situation" for North China's migrants lasts though. It could very well be quite protracted or it could be another couple months.

If Beijing's economic stimulus package were to keep enough people busy, it doesn't sound like these migrants need much to stay happy. I'm pretty sure they'll be satisfied as long as they have a job they can toil at everyday and a small wad of cash to take home each month.

But if a large number of people are forced to return back to the farm because there truly is nothing going on for them, frustrations will surely build. Returning to the farm just won't do for most of them.

Handling these millions of unemployed migrants throughout all of China will be a huge test for China. As China's President, Hu Jintao, said in December:
"Whether the pressures can be turned into a driving force and the challenges turned to opportunities ... is a test of our ability to control a complex situation, and also a test of our party's governing ability," Hu said.
Hu is indeed right about the severity of the economic crisis and its impact on China. The coming year and the Party's ability to manage the the crisis will surely be be a more difficult and exhausting task than organizing the Olympics or managing run-away growth over the past couple decades.

Notice Hu in his quote talking about turning "challenges into opportunities." I had a lengthy discussion about this fallacy a few weeks ago. Through a bit of research I discovered that, in fact, the Chinese word for crisis is not a combination of the characters for danger and opportunity.

Life would be so much easier if "crisis" had an intrinsic "opportunity" aspect built into it. But alas, it doesn't. The coming year is going to be very difficult for everyone and there will be no guarantees for anyone.

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