GETUOPU VILLAGE, China (Reuters) - Bundled in city clothes, Zhao Yongfeng slumped in front of a television set and tried to ignore the red-cheeked children in padded jackets who raced around his mother’s store in a village in Shanxi province.
Zhao was among millions of migrant workers who made the annual trek home for the Lunar New Year festival.
With the holiday over, he was eager to return quickly to his job as a car salesman in the north central city of Shijiazhuang, even though a slowing economy meant car buyers were scarce.
“I got out of here when I was 20. And I’m almost 30 now, so that’s a long time,” Zhao said.
He gave a tight, icy smile and shook his head, when asked if he still felt at home in the village.
China’s enormous countryside has traditionally acted like a sponge, releasing hundreds of millions of migrant workers who have sought their fortunes in cities when times were good, and reabsorbing them when jobs got scarce.
Now as China’s economy slows, especially the export and construction sectors, officials are worried that protests and unrest could erupt if migrants can’t find jobs when they return to the cities after the New Year break with their rural families.
For millions of Chinese migrant workers, staying permanently in a village like Getuopu, whose name translates roughly as “pile of clods,” is a pretty depressing option.
Getuopu is picturesque but so poor that the only concrete building is a two-classroom school built as a charity project by the army. The mud homes lack plumbing, the sunlit courtyards are piled with corn, and donkeys are tethered in dirt streets.
Old people grow potatoes and grain in terraces cut into loose soil, and spend their days watching the children playing in colorful padded jackets to keep them warm in the freezing cold.
Most of the young adults have left for the city, with no intention of ever moving back.
Ge Cunming has only one child who stayed in Getuopu, a 39-year-old mentally disabled daughter. The others have scattered. A son joined the army and Ge’s daughters moved to the nearby cities of Datong and Hohhot.
None came back even to celebrate the Lunar New Year holiday, China’s most important family gathering, Ge admitted, pointing with a dirty finger to the framed pictures of her city grandchildren.
“They send money back, and they called. Maybe someone will come visit home tomorrow,” she said.
Bright quilts at each doorway help trap heat inside the single-storey mud homes.
The only warmth in Ge’s home is the coal-fired stove and the kang, a heated platform where the family eats, relaxes and sleeps. A bare lightbulb and kerosene lamps light the dingy kitchen cupboards.
Even in Xiahan town, a larger collection of brick homes and paved streets on the nearby plain, the adults visiting for the New Year have an anxious eye on the outside job market.
“There isn’t much construction work this year. Everything’s been pretty much built up already,” said a gangly worker, whose surname Kong identified him as a descendent of Confucius.
Editing by Megan Goldin