Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Will China be destabilized as "floating population" returns to rural areas?

Shai Oster reports in the Wall Street Journal today about a new wave of migration in China. In many cases, this migration is taking workers from construction and manufacturing jobs in cities -- work that is drying up in the slumping economy--back to the rural provinces from which they initially came. The headline is "China Fears Restive Migrants as Jobs Disappear in Cities," and here is an excerpt.

China's roaring industrial economy has been abruptly quieted by the effects of the global financial crisis. Rural provinces that supplied much of China's factory manpower are watching the beginnings of a wave of reverse migration that has the potential to shake the stability of the world's most populous nation.

Fast-rising unemployment has led to an unusual series of strikes and protests. Normally cautious government officials have offered quick concessions and talk openly of their worries about social unrest.

* * *

As the government tries to calm tensions in the cities, it also fears that newly unemployed migrants returning home could upend the already-strained social system in the countryside.

* * *

For workers accustomed to a decade of double-digit growth, China's sudden downturn has come as a shock to the system. Migrant workers -- estimated to make up a tenth of the country's population -- have powered China's economic success in the three decades since free-market reforms began.

Oster reports that while the percentage of farmable land in China is about what is in the United States, 730 million Chinese residents--more than twice the entire U.S. population--live in rural parts of the country. According to Joshua Muldavin, a professor at Sarah Lawrence College, many migrant workers left their villages over the years because some 80-100 milion rural residents have no land or only enough land for subsistence farming. The "large-scale return of peasants could add tens of millions to that," Muldavin estimates, suggesting that the significance of the reverse migration "can't be exaggerated."

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