[DEBATE] : (Fwd) 130m troublemakers in Chinese towns and villages
pbond at mail.ngo.za
Tue Feb 24 11:28:22 GMT 2009
NY Times, February 23, 2009
China Fears Tremors as Jobs Vanish From Coast
By ANDREW JACOBS
TANJIA, China — Tan Tianying might not look like a troublemaker, but she
and millions of other workers like her have government leaders fretting
about the country’s stability.
A shy, delicately built seamstress who makes aprons and coveralls in
Guangzhou, Ms. Tan, 24, is part of an army of migrants, 130 million
strong, who have flocked to cities for jobs, but whose prospects for
continued employment are increasingly dim.
As the global economic crisis deepens and the demand for Chinese exports
slackens, manufacturing jobs in the Pearl River Delta and all along the
once-booming coast are disappearing at a stunning pace. Over the last
few months, more than 20 million migrant workers have been cast into the
ranks of the unemployed, depriving impoverished towns like Tanjia of the
much-needed income the workers sent home.
Since December, hundreds of employees at Ms. Tan’s uniform factory have
been let go and wages have been cut by a third as orders from the United
States dry up. Last year, 2,400 factories in and around Guangzhou closed.
“I hope I still have a job,” Ms. Tan said this month, a few hours before
leaving Tanjia on a train for the 10-hour ride that in recent years has
carried away most of the town’s working-age residents. “I don’t want to
go back to being a poor farmer.”
In a nation obsessed with social harmony, the well-being of China’s
mobile work force has become the top priority for a government that has
long seen its fortunes tied to those of the country’s 800 million rural
dwellers. Mao’s revolution, after all, was fueled by embittered
peasants, and it has not gone unnoticed in Beijing that decades of heady
growth has fed a widening gap between urban residents and those who live
in the rural interior.
Although the government has not released updated information about rural
unrest, officials have been strategizing about how best to keep large
protests and riots from spreading, should the dispossessed grow unruly.
This week, more than 3,000 public security directors from across the
country are gathering in the capital to learn how to neutralize rallies
and strikes before they blossom into so-called mass incidents. At a
meeting of the Chinese cabinet last month, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao
told government leaders they should prepare for rough times ahead. “The
country’s employment situation is extremely grim,” he said.
To ameliorate the hardship of idled migrants, the central government has
announced a series of initiatives that include vocational training, an
expansion of rural health care and crop subsidies to ensure that those
who return to the land can make a living despite a slump in agricultural
prices. A $585 billion stimulus package introduced in November, much of
it weighted toward labor-intensive construction projects, is also
expected to absorb some of the newly unemployed.
But here in Tanjia and the surrounding countryside of northeast Hunan
Province, most people say they have yet to see much in the way of
government largess. As the Lunar New Year came to an end two weeks ago,
many migrants who had come home for the holidays were anxious to return
south, where they hoped to reclaim their old jobs or find new ones.
About 40 percent of the town’s 2,000 residents work outside the
province, and their remittances have been a lifeline for the children
and elderly people who remain behind. Much of that money has been spent
on motorcycles, high school educations and new homes, some trimmed with
Corinthian columns and ceramic dragons, that are the brick-and-mortar
embodiment of this newfound prosperity.
Ms. Tan’s family home, like those of her neighbors, is a work in
progress. Since 2005, her mother, father and brother, all migrant
workers, have poured $15,000 into the two-story house, but they still
need another $9,000 for appliances, fixtures and a white tiled facade.
“We have no savings,” said her father, Tan Liangsheng, 52, a
haggard-looking man who recently lost his job as a construction worker.
“All our hard work and bitterness is invested in this house.”
Just behind him sat the mud-brick structure where the extended Tan clan
used to live.
In some ways, Tanjia’s residents are luckier than most. Unlike China’s
drought-stricken north and its chronically arid west, Hunan Province is
well watered and blessed with a temperate climate that allows farmers to
grow food much of the year.
Still, with 64 million people squeezed into an area the size of Kansas,
most people make do with tiny plots of land; in Tanjia the average size
is a tenth of an acre. “Maybe we won’t starve to death, but life would
become very difficult if everyone came back home,” said Long Feng, 29,
who works at a car repair shop in Shenzhen, not far from the Hong Kong
In Zhuzhou, the nearest city of any consequence, government officials
are not very concerned about a surge in jobless farmers.
Chen Shuxian, director of Zhuzhou’s employment center, said he was more
worried about the 3.7 million people who live in and around his booming
city, people who have become accustomed to relatively comfortable lives.
“They have cellphone bills and rent to pay,” he said. “The migrants
don’t have a lot of expectations and they can always fall back on the
land and their family savings.”
Such sentiments are common in China, where rural laborers are often
viewed as dime-a-dozen workhorses capable of enduring enormous hardship.
He Xuefeng, a professor who studies rural life, said many manufacturers
believed the most productive workers were spent by 40.
“As workers grow older, they can’t work as quickly or accurately, so
they are naturally eliminated,” said Mr. He, who teaches at Huazhong
University of Science and Technology in Hubei Province. “The financial
crisis will simply speed up that process by two or three years and force
them to return home earlier.”
After he lost his job at a glass factory in Guangzhou last year, Wang
Liming, 39, returned to his home on the outskirts of Zhuzhou thinking he
could find employment nearby. Things turned more dire after his wife
lost her job just before the New Year festivities.
He acknowledged that there was work to be had in Zhuzhou, but those jobs
generally pay less than $100 a month, about half what a semiskilled
assembly line position pays in Guangzhou.
“I couldn’t even afford my daughter’s high school tuition on that kind
of salary,” he said, standing in front of his home, a half-built box
that lacks windows and a refrigerator.
A gruff, chain-smoking man, Mr. Wang said the decade he spent in the
south turned him off to agricultural work. “I hate working the fields,”
he said as his neighbors nodded in agreement. Even if they wanted to, he
and his fellow villagers could not make much money from farming: some of
the best patches of land have been swallowed up by Zhuzhou’s rapid
development, including the electric generating plant that dominates the
view from his front door.
Asked about his plans, Mr. Wang shook his head, glanced at his cellphone
and said he was waiting for friends in Guangzhou to call him about a
job. “I’m just hoping the phone rings,” he said.
Zhang Jing contributed research.
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