Millions of China’s Migrant Workers Returning to Rural Hometowns, Likely Due to Unemployment

November 15, 2018 Updated: November 16, 2018

China’s Ministry of Agriculture announced on Nov. 8 that there are currently 7.4 million migrant workers who are returning from working in urban metropolises to their home villages.

In recent years, millions of China’s rural residents—many of them from impoverished farming villages—have left their hometowns for the country’s big cities in search of better-paying jobs to support their families. China has approximately 300 million migrant workers.

The ministry claimed in its announcement that people now returning to their hometowns include migrant workers, college students, retired military personnel, and scientific and technical personnel. The average age of those returning is 40, and 40 percent of them are educated beyond the high school level. The ministry said these people will become “the main force” in leading farmers to become rich.

But chances are, they are people who have lost their jobs and are now forced to return to their hometowns.

Unemployment is considered a taboo topic by Beijing—and has historically been underreported. China’s official unemployment rate has hovered around 4 percent, but that figure does not count migrant workers, who are treated almost as second-class citizens due to their rural background. They are often ineligible for state benefits such as unemployment.

China’s economy is also experiencing slowing growth, as several economic indicators have shown, such as real estate investment reaching a 10-month low, retail sales growth falling behind expectations, and stock market prices plunging.

Mr. Wang, a migrant worker originally from Jilin Province in northeastern China, told NTD, part of the Epoch Media Group, in a Nov. 12 interview that he and his coworkers had worked for a property developer in a major city for several years, but had not received sufficient wages. They have filed a lawsuit against the developer for the past three years, but have not gotten any response, he said.

“We’ve sued those developers several times for owing migrant workers’ wages—at the local government and also in Beijing. But the government staff drove us out using police batons,” said Mr. Wang.

Mr. Wang said that with so many people returning to their rural hometowns, job opportunities will be even scarcer back home. Returning to one’s hometown is simply a euphemism for unemployment.

“We don’t have money. How do we start a business in our hometown?” he said. “If we can start a business and live well at home, why would we have bothered to travel to the city to find a job?”

NetEase, a Chinese news portal, reported on Oct. 22 that in the first half of this year, 5.04 million companies closed down and more than 2 million people became unemployed. The report also noted that chairmen at 453 publicly listed companies have resigned or were fired in the same period. This report was soon deleted by Chinese censors.

Yang Zhanqing, a senior staff member at a Chinese NGO, also told NTD that since most migrant workers have become accustomed to the urban lifestyle, it will be difficult for them to readjust to the rural way of living.