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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Let's talk about another kind of movement - not from country to country but from farms to the city. China's farmers have gone to the city for years to earn money. Now, the faltering economy has reversed that flow and has left an estimated 23 million migrant workers jobless.

Now, we should clarify. China's economy is still expanding, but that growth rate has slowed several percentage points and was at 6.1 percent for the first quarter. Americans would like that right now, but for China it's not as much as they're used to.

NPR's Louisa Lim reports on the newly unemployed from the hardscrabble province of Anhui in central China.

LOUISA LIM: Twenty-seven-year-old Shao Yunlong is literally a beast of burden. He's dragging a homemade wooden cart full of mud, doing what should be an animal's work. He'll smear the mud across his farming plot in Badou village in to make rice paddies.

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

Mr. SHAO YUNLONG: (Through Translator) 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.

LIM: He's not alone. Besides the estimated 23 million jobless migrant workers, another six million are due to enter the workforce this year, yet this unemployment is largely a hidden problem, with many of the jobless melting back into their home villages.

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LIM: There are people like 28-year-old Kan Weihua, who sits on a stool knitting a black sweater and looking bleakly out onto the picturesque carpet of yellow oilseed rape in nearby Xiaobao village. She sees her own failings.

Ms. KAN WEIHUA: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: I can't farm. I've never farmed, she says. I'll have to go out and find work again. She's wearing high heels. Returning to her village was never part of her game plan, but her factory job stopped paying overtime and 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 this is all too common.

Mr. YANG QIPING (Village Official): (Through Translator) Twenty to thirty percent of people here have no work. High unemployment is affecting the economy, and social order.

LIM: Some of the unemployed wile away their days playing mahjong, like former factory worker Yang Zhifu, who's basically hoping to wait out the financial crisis at home.

Mr. YANG ZHIFU: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: You never make money from crying, he says. You might as well play mahjong and earn money. He's cleaning up today 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.

But when asked what his plans are if the job situation doesn't improve, his first instinct is to turn to the government. China still has lots of money, he says. They should give it to us ordinary people. So far there's little anger about the financial crisis, just resignation. Most Chinese have faith in recent statements by Chinese leaders that signs of recovery are emerging. But some analysts warn China's recession could be W shaped, a short term upswing driven by the government's stimulus package, followed by another downturn.

If that were to happen, the mood could change. That much is clear with Shao Yunlong, who grumbles about local government's officials as he dredges mud for his paddy field. He says they wasted money and botched the irrigation system that's now so vital for those who have to take up farming again.

Mr. YUNLONG: (Through Translator) We tried to complain, but they wouldn't listen to us. If we really did have problems, the government wouldn't help us.

LIM: China's rural migrants literally built the country's economic miracle. Now they're seeing their hard won gains trickling away. The government depended on this army of migrant laborers. Now many are jobless, it fears they could become a force for unrest.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Anhui Province, China.

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