By all appearances, Dong Bo has been living the good life since returning home this month for the Chinese New Year holiday that starts Monday.
He spends his days leisurely, waking up late, visiting with friends playing mah-jongg and taking walks with his freckle-faced girlfriend in this peaceful farming town in central China.
But, as with many of China’s 130 million migrant workers, the grim realities of the global economy weigh heavily in Dong’s heart. For the first time since leaving home seven years ago, the 25-year-old does not have a city job waiting for him after the weeklong festival ends.
Dong and many others like him plan to go back to coastal industrial centers that for three decades have been churning out goods for American consumers and improving the living standard of China’s peasant farmers. But with the Chinese economy in the throes of its worst decline in years, analysts say, there won’t be enough jobs to satisfy the crush of returning workers -- raising the specter of more social turmoil and, for those staying in villages, conflicts over land and farming rights.
Dong was laid off from an electronics factory in southeastern Guangdong province, one of countless plants in China suffering from a drop-off in orders from the U.S. and Europe.
“How shall I put it?” he said, searching for words to explain his joblessness. Dong’s girlfriend leaned on her lanky man as a dozen neighbors hovered over them to listen in.
In so many ways, he said, things have gotten better in his village. Some of the houses are freshly painted and decorated, including his parents’. There is more dried fish and meat hanging on the porches than before. Next spring the village will get running water. Yet, now, he fears for the future, and his marriage plans are in limbo.
“Everything depends on my financial situation,” he said.
Although many migrant workers were heading home for the holiday this week, government surveys suggest that 5% to 7%, or 6.5 million to 9 million, of China’s so-called floating population had already returned to their hometowns by the end of last year, largely because of factory shutdowns, dwindling work hours and disappearing job opportunities.
About 15,000 of Gaoshibei’s 40,000 residents had left for jobs elsewhere but the majority had returned by the end of the year, according to local officials who closely track the movement. Most of the returnees had worked in garment plants in Guangdong province, about 500 miles, or a 20-hour bus ride, away.
“Many of them came back because the owner of their plant ran away, or they haven’t any salary for months,” said Dong Lin, head of Gaoshibei’s worker training program.
Now, some of them don’t want to go back after the holiday and are hoping to land something closer to home in Hubei province or its capital city, Wuhan, about 110 miles to the east. Other migrant workers have sought to resume farming on family land.
Most in Gaoshibei and elsewhere, however, are expected to make their way back to industrial cities in Guangdong or the Yangtze River delta.
In recent months laid-off factory workers have clashed with police in Guangdong and other provinces over unpaid wages and other grievances.
“When they come back to look for jobs, there will definitely be problems,” said Zhang Quanshou, president of Shenzhen Quanshun Human Resource Co., a labor-supply firm in Shenzhen, which borders Hong Kong.
He said one of his clients, a Japanese maker of DVD players, had in previous years requested 2,000 workers after the New Year holiday. This year, 500 will do.
Zhang’s advice to migrant workers is to stay put for now. “In their hometown, at least they have rice to eat.”
When China’s industrial sector was humming, employers fretted about not having enough workers after the Spring Festival, as the Chinese call their most important holiday, when millions travel for an annual visit with family and friends. But the tables have turned dramatically.
In Dongguan, the world’s toy-making capital, an estimated 1,800 of the 3,800 toy factories have gone out of business or will close soon, the industry’s trade group said recently. There have been similarly massive cuts at factories that make textiles, shoes and furniture, and layoffs have spread to electronics and metal producers as well as restaurants and other low-end service jobs filled by itinerant workers.
The central government is trying to stem the rise in joblessness by pumping hundreds of billions of dollars into infrastructure projects, cutting fuel prices and pushing banks to lend to small businesses. Local governments have stepped up worker training.
But most migrant workers have few skills and little education, not to mention the funds needed to start businesses. Zhao Shukai, a government researcher, recently surveyed the scene in the southern Guangxi area, a feeder of laborers for nearby Guangdong province. He learned that in some villages, as many as two-thirds of the people who had migrated to the cities had recently lost their jobs. Only about half of them had returned to their villages, he said. The other half remained jobless in the cities.
This restive group could spell trouble, scholars say, because some of them don’t have family farmlands to go back to while others have never lived long in the countryside and don’t want to be there.
Rural officials also fear increased tension as more migrants come home -- and stay.
In Gaoshibei, a poor but scenic area teeming with pine trees and famous for its radishes, about 5,000 villagers transferred the rights to their land to others before migrating for work. Some land was given to relatives and other plots were leased to sharecroppers.
The individual plots are small, averaging only about a third of an acre each, says Liu Ruxuan, the town’s chief economic officer. But already, he says, 20 to 30 cases of disputes have surfaced since last fall.
“Next [lunar] year the situation is going to get worse,” he said, adding that many migrants are waiting until after the Spring Festival ends to decide whether to leave for the city again.
On a cold Saturday morning in Chenling, the largest of Gaoshibei’s 23 administrative villages, several men were cleaning and slaughtering hogs in a traditional stone vat for the upcoming festivities. Crouching women were skinning silver carp to be dried. Firecrackers were popping.
Down a dirt road that meanders along a polluted waterway, past tangles of briarwood and brush, a row of brick and concrete houses emerged.
Jiang Dajun, 44, stood outside one home, forlornly staring at the blanket of frost covering a field of rapeseed plants. He was recently sent home from a garment factory job for a lack of orders.
In four years in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province, Jiang had toiled in three apparel factories, in good times making as much as $300 a month. Last year, he was lucky to make half that much.
The middle-school graduate had never planned to be a migrant worker. But in 2002, his wife left home for Guangzhou to earn extra money to support their two children. Two years later, she fell ill on the factory floor, so Jiang left to be with her.
Soon he found similar work there. Later, their teenage daughter joined them in Guangzhou while Jiang’s parents in Chenling looked after their son. Among the three of them working in the city, the family saved up and last year pulled together about $14,000 to build a two-story house in their village.
The house, with four bedrooms and a solar panel on the roof, is the nicest in the area. But soon it will be occupied by only two people.
Jiang says the family doesn’t want to separate but worries about whether there will be sufficient work, in the city or the countryside. So after the holiday, he says, his wife and daughter, now 20, will return to Guangzhou and look for jobs at clothing factories. Jiang says he’ll stay in the village with his 10-year-old boy, and hopes to make a living by fixing houses. He doesn’t plan to return to the city.
“You work long hours and don’t get paid very well,” he said. “I will not go back.”
Cao Jun in The Times’ Shanghai bureau contributed to this report.