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Migrants pack up from boomtowns

Lakhs of farmers-turned-factory-workers who made your clothes, shoes, toys and furniture are leaving China’s export capitals to return to the countryside they bid goodbye in the Eighties, reports Reshma Patil.

world Updated: Nov 22, 2008 01:23 IST
Reshma Patil

Train commuters with bundles tied to poles slung on their shoulders could make a postcard of rural India’s exodus to Mumbai as it battles anti-migrant rhetoric.

But this is the scene from urban China next-door, the world’s fastest-growing economy and India’s envy.

Lakhs of farmers-turned-factory-workers who made your clothes, shoes, toys and furniture are leaving China’s export capitals to return to the countryside they bid goodbye in the Eighties.

“It’s probably the first time this movement is happening on a large scale,” World Bank economist Louis Kuijs told Hindustan Times in Beijing. “It may slow down urbanisation.”

The nationwide numbers are still unclear. But this week, the journeys made China’s social security minister Yin Weimin say that preventing labour unrest is Beijing’s “top concern”.

Over the past two months, three lakh migrants left cities to return to rice bowl Hubei. Officials say the number will double by December-end. Another three lakh have returned to China’s granary, Jiangxi.

But Chinese farms don’t need extra hands. “It is not obvious there is work in agriculture for people going back,” said Kuijs. “In China, land is scarce, not people.”

So officials from rural outposts have staked out Beijing hotels to lobby for a share of China’s $586 billion building boom of highways, bridges, ports and airports, to spur demand for construction materials and jobs.

While India’s loss-making airlines start skipping small towns, China is building at least 50 airports and renovating 78. The world’s largest steel producer and consumer is doubling investment in railway projects.

In southern Guangdong, the global workshop where 7,000 factories shut down or relocated this year, 222 investment projects were announced this month. Across China, 67,000 companies have collapsed.

“The worst is yet to come,” said Shanghai-based Chenhao Zhang, a senior analyst with JL McGregor & Company. As real-estate sites lie idle in Beijing, it will spend more on building subways in the next four years than it spent during its past five-year Olympics makeover.

Chenhao said the investment stimulus could shift jobs from factories to infrastructure. “The concern is, will they execute the package smartly?” he said.

State-run media have reported that 11 ministries have hardly 100 days to spend about $15 billion of the stimulus — like $147 million on rural reproductive health care — before early March when China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress, meets.

“The risk does not seem to be how much and how fast can Beijing spend,” said a statement from Frank Gong, head of China research and strategy at JP Morgan. “The quality of these investments is really the thing the market will keep a close track on.” And so will India.