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Economic Turbulence, Migration And China’s First Disaffected Generation

Just a few years ago, booming manufacturing industry in the Pearl Delta Region was an unprecedented opportunity for well-paid jobs for millions of young Chinese domestic migrants. Now, shuttered factories and dashed hopes are creating social unrest.

Young workers in a factory near Guangzhou, in a 2010 photo (Lyle Vincent)
Young workers in a factory near Guangzhou, in a 2010 photo (Lyle Vincent)
Xu Weiming

XUWEN - Yang Dingyi can barely afford a basic cell phone. Meanwhile, his "buddies," who spend their days robbing people in the city, already all have touch screen smart phones.

Since he returned home from Guangzhou last June, Yang has yet to find a job. He is currently helping his parents to raise mussels for pearls. Meanwhile, his friends keep on inviting him to join their gang.

Yang comes from the rural west Xuwen County of Guangdong Province, located at the southernmost tip of China's coastal territory. The area had supplied much of the migrant labor force for the Pearl Delta Region, where a large number of companies have recently gone bankrupt, or simply shuttered their factories. Many young migrant workers have returned home, one after another. Simultaneously, robbery rates in the city proper have soared.

According to official data from the past two years, Chinese youngsters born after 1980 make up nearly 60% of migrant workers in China's major cities.

All the local people I encountered in Xuwen confirmed to me that the security situation is worse than it has ever been. And even though the local Public Security Bureau has stepped up patrols to combat violent crime, many people no longer leave their homes at night.

Behind the decline in social order is the reality of severe unemployment among young people in this West Guangdong Province.

The returning youth

Like many of his mates, Yang left his village to go to the Pearl Delta region in 2009. Most kids left school at the age of 15 or so. Some even left before finishing junior high school.

In two years, Yang changed jobs seven times and drifted through the entire Pearl Delta Region. His monthly wages stagnated at around 2000 RMB ($317). In the beginning, this was just enough to live on, but with the increase in living costs and inflation, it became virtually impossible to keep up, and he was forced to give up his cell phone.

A year ago, finally, business got so bad for the bag factory where he worked that he didn't even have enough working days to pay his rent. He was forced to go home.

One month later, Lin, another village friend, and his cousin also returned from the city. Lin worked in an electronic component plant. His boss had run away without paying the workers. Lin's cousin had worked in a garment company that hadn't been operational for most of 2011.

The situation in Xuwen is mirrored in other rural areas of West Guangdong.

According to estimates by Cheng Jiansan, the Director of the Guangzhou Academy of Social Sciences Research for the Pearl Delta Region Economy, there are more than 40 million migrant workers in this region. Nearly half of them come from the other parts of the Guangdong Province itself. Over the past two years, because of the closure of a large number of factories, many workers have been obliged to return home. It is estimated, for example, that there are more than a million such former workers in the region where Yang and Lin came from.

The closure of factories is caused not only just by rising labor and raw material costs, but also the appreciation of Chinese currency, the RMB. Also, local governments have recently instituted a "double transfer" policy – transferring both the workers and industry to other poorer areas of Guangdong.

Wen Chimu, the Secretary-General of the Dongguan Taiwan Business Association said that local authorities are deliberately driving out labor-intensive enterprises by raising the rents.

Bored out of their minds

Since Lin came back to his village, he at least has been able to buy a basic cell phone. But he has nothing better to do than sit around and play electronic games on it. At night, he joins Yang to have a drink, often with some of the other peers who have returned as well this past year from a labor migration experience.

Three of their drinking buddies were arrested four months ago for allegedly beating and stabbing someone to death.

According to a recent census, most youngsters who create trouble in the village have come back from the closed factories. Just two years ago, there was hardly a young soul in the village.

A local policeman said the youngsters most like to steal motorbikes, because they sell well. When they rob, very often it's in broad daylight, and the perpertrators don't even cover their faces. Some carry weapons: "They have a kind of locally made shotgun about 60-70 cm long. It can fire a hundred iron pellets', the policeman says.

The general nature of these disaffected youth is low employment skills and high consumer desires. To them, the local factories offer an unsatisfying salary, around 1000 RMB ($158), far lower than that of the Pearl Delta Region. Besides, as 80% of factories are food canning plants, workers are hired only during the local fruit harvests. Although the restaurants in town desperately need help, they offer even lower wages that do not attract these unrealistically ambitious youth.

According to the data from the Xuwen Statistic Bureau, its annual GDP is only 7.8 billion yuan, ($1.4 billion) in which the proportion of industry makes up a mere 13%. Many labor-intensive factories that are moving out of the Pearl Delta unfortunately do not relocate towards West Guandong, but rather to North or East Guangdong which offer better industrial zone planning, infrastructure and land supply.

"What Xuwen has got up to now are capital-intensive projects like steel factories or petrochemical plants," Cheng Jiansan said.

Nowhere to go back to

Meanwhile, untrained and poorly educated young kids are increasingly dropping out of school, and becoming a burden on the local society and the economy.

Strolling around Yang's village, the banana, sugarcane and pineapple fields, as well as the smell of fish drying in the open air, give a peaceful feeling. Yet, because of the many teens who have little to do, this idyll is being slowly torn apart.

Though Lin has come back to his home village, he says it seems foreign to him. In his village, most people live on fishing. But it is hard work, with wakeup calls before 5 a.m, and stays at sea that can last three or four days. Besides, his parents, along with most other villagers consider the fishing too dangerous for their darling children, and farming a way of life of the past.

"None of today's children can take any hardship. Ever since they were little, they've never had to work," the party leader of Yang's village says. "And their parents spoil them."

Yang at least still helps his parents with the pearl mussel farming. But he and his parents would prefer that he returned to better-earning work in the Pearl Delta.

"Do you know anybody who can hire our son in Guangzhou?", Lin's parents asked me. "We are just worried that he might get on the wrong path."

For Lin and others of his generation, it seems that neither staying nor leaving home offers much promise right now.

Read the original article in Chinese

Photo - Lyle Vincent

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