China's jobless migrants loath to return to countryside

Sun Feb 22, 2009 7:27pm EST
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By Simon Rabinovitch

ZHONGMU COUNTY, China (Reuters) - The parched farmlands of central China hold no future for Li Honglin, but she is trapped there until word comes from a clothing factory far away on the coast where she used to work.

Li's boss promised to call her back to her job as a sewing machinist when the factory resumes full production. It's not clear when that might happen, though, as China's garment exports have been decimated by the economic downturn and orders are thin.

Wearing tight pants and high-heel shoes studded with rhinestones, Li stood with her parents and elderly neighbors as they played mahjong late into the afternoon by a dusty road about an hour's drive from Henan's provincial capital, Zhengzhou.

"Almost all my friends have already gone back to the big cities, but I'm not rushing out. You need to have a job to live in the city. It's too expensive to get by without one," she said.

Li's caution sets her apart from the masses of rural Chinese who are still thronging to the country's industrial jungle despite bleak employment prospects, fuelling official fears that city streets could turn into breeding grounds for disappointed, disgruntled young men.

Hoping to keep unemployed migrants in the countryside at the end of their visits home for the Lunar New Year holiday, the government has offered them funds and training to start their own businesses.

Despite the incentives, when Chinese New Year celebrations ended this month, tens of millions left their family plots of hardscrabble land to seek riches, or at least a decent wage, in factories and on construction sites.

Many have run square into the hard realities of the global financial crisis.   Continued...

<p>A farmer carries buckets of water to his drought-affected crops in a field near the village of Zhudong in Hongchang County, Henan province February 15, 2009. REUTERS/David Gray</p>