Unemployment Swells In China

Shao Yunlong works in the fields. i i

Shao Yunlong, 27, drags a homemade wooden cart full of mud in hardscrabble Anhui province to make rice paddies. This time last year, he was working as a waiter in a Shanghai restaurant, earning $175 a month. Then, the financial crisis hit and his wages plummeted. Louisa Lim/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Louisa Lim/NPR
Shao Yunlong works in the fields.

Shao Yunlong, 27, drags a homemade wooden cart full of mud in hardscrabble Anhui province to make rice paddies. This time last year, he was working as a waiter in a Shanghai restaurant, earning $175 a month. Then, the financial crisis hit and his wages plummeted.

Louisa Lim/NPR

Government figures due to be released Thursday will reportedly show China's economic growth for the first quarter of the year slumping to a record low.

The collapsing demand for Chinese products overseas has led to factory closures, leaving an estimated 23 million migrant workers jobless.

For years, China's farmers have made the pilgrimage from the countryside to the city to earn money. Now that flow has reversed.

On a recent afternoon, Shao Yunlong, 27, drags a homemade wooden cart full of mud, doing what should be an animal's work. He will spread the mud across his farm plot in Badou village in hardscrabble Anhui province to make rice paddies.

This time last year, his life was very different. He was working as a waiter in a Shanghai restaurant, earning $175 a month. Then, the financial crisis hit and his wages plummeted.

"I was only earning about $100 a month. It was too little. I looked for two months, but I couldn't find any other work. Everybody's looking, and nobody's employing. So I came home."

He is not alone. In March, the National Statistics Bureau estimated that 23 million migrant workers are jobless. Another 6 million are due to enter the work force this year.

Jobless Returning To Rural Villages

China's rural migrants literally built the country's economic miracle, flocking to the cities to take jobs as laborers in the past two decades. Now they are seeing their hard-won gains trickle away.

Many of the jobless are retreating to their home villages.

Kan Weihua, 28, sits on a stool, knitting a black sweater and looking bleakly out onto the farm fields near Xiaobao village. She sees her own failings. Returning to her village was never part of her plan.

"I can't farm, I've never farmed," she says, looking down at her high-heeled shoes. "I'll have to go out and find work again."

But her factory job stopped paying overtime, and she says her wages plummeted 30 percent. For her, the China dream — of improving her family's life — is suddenly on hold. Her future is out of her hands.

Village official Yang Qiping says it is a common problem. Unemployment in the village is running as high as 30 percent.

"High unemployment is affecting the economy, and social order," Yang said.

But anger about China's financial crisis has not spilled into the streets.

Quiet Resignation

Mainly, there is quiet resignation. Most Chinese have faith in recent statements by Chinese leaders that signs of recovery are emerging.

But some analysts warn that China's recession could be W-shaped: a short-term upswing driven by the government's $586 billion stimulus package, followed by another downturn. If that were to happen, they warn, the mood could change.

But not for former factory worker Yang Zhifu, who has returned from a job in Mongolia. He is hoping to wait out the financial crisis at home.

"You'll never make money from crying. You might as well play mahjong and earn money," he says to laughter from his fellow players.

On this day, he is doing well, with winnings of around $20. But his family has cut daily expenditures by half, and abandoned plans to build a new house.

"We have our land, so we won't starve," he says cheerily. "It's America's problem, not China's."

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