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08 December 2023

China's jobless migrants confront a dim future

Workers gather at an unofficial job market on a street in Beijing, China. China's growth has plunged in recent months as a sharp decline in demand for Chinese goods overseas has forced thousands of factories to close. More than 20 million rural migrant workers are now jobless, the government said, heightening concerns over unrest in the vast impoverished countryside (AP)

Newly unemployed and careworn at just 19, Zhan Ke is typical of a swelling mass of Chinese with no jobs and dim futures who pose an acute challenge for China's leaders as the economy stumbles.

Forced back to his rural home in Sichuan province three months ago when the global financial crisis closed the electronics factory where he toiled for low pay in south China, Zhan now scratches out a precarious living with odd jobs.

"When the financial crisis hit, the factory lost money and I had to come back. There was less and less work until I couldn't stay there anymore," Zhan said dejectedly while repairing a brick farmhouse.

"I never thought I'd be back so early. I expected to stay there another year or two," he said, adding that his future was "unclear".

Zhan's story is now a common one in towns like Zhugao, a polluted, dirt-poor and overcrowded farming community of about 100,000 famed within Sichuan province for sending out over half of its adult population as migrant workers.

As millions of the migrant workers across China returned to cities and manufacturing areas from Lunar New Year holidays this week, the government warned at least 20 million others were jobless due to the crisis.

Zhugao's top export still appears to be people, with large crowds of migrants -- young and old -- massing at chaotic bus stops to board buses that barrel down its narrow main road and out of town.

But now many others such as Zhan have nowhere to go. Year-end returnees to Zhugao last year were up 40 percent over 2007, according to local media reports.

"Some migrant workers who have returned home have found new jobs, but there are many more without them," said Cheng Fengjin, an official in Zhugao's labour protection bureau.

This threatens towns such as Zhugao that depend heavily on remittances from migrants. Up to a third of Zhugao's annual income comes from such sources, local media reported.

That, in turn, worries the ruling Communist Party.

With most of China's cradle-to-grave socialist supports stripped away in a three-decade capitalist transformation, the party's legitimacy has rested on the promise of a better life through continued economic growth and better jobs.

The government indicated its fears this week, saying the millions of jobless risked sparking more unrest in a country that already sees tens of thousands of disturbances each year over various forms of social discontent.

"After returning to their village, what do they do about revenue? About their lives? This is a new factor impacting this year's social stability," said Chen Xiwen, director of a top central government committee on rural issues.

China has announced a range of measures to help people in the countryside, including subsidies for buying home appliances and crops, and providing vocational training.

Yet in places such as Zhugao, these incentives are so far being barely felt, and returning to work the fields offers little.

Zhugao is in the middle of the fertile and heavily cultivated Sichuan basin but migrants complain agricultural jobs can no longer support local populations amid recent high inflation.

In Zhan Ke's case, returning to the family farm was not even an option.

When, aged 16, he and his parents left for the southern province of Guangdong, their fields were left fallow. Eager to keep that land productive, local officials gave the land to others to till.

Like many in Zhugao, Zhan plans to search for a job in the Sichuan capital of Chengdu. His parents, also jobless, have already gone ahead.

Many here hold out hope that reconstruction elsewhere in Sichuan from last May's huge earthquake will provide work.

"Zhugao's only hope is to send people elsewhere to work, not just for a better life but to make sure we can eat at all," said resident Tang Shiyou, 41, a past migrant eking out a living on a farm.

He sums up Zhugao's prospects with a Chinese saying that means: "Sit idle and eat, and soon you will have nothing left."