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China’s Factory Workers Head Home: Migrants from the interior return to set up businesses

China’s Factory Workers Head Home
Migrants from the interior return to set up businesses.

By Dexter Roberts | July 13, 2016
Photographs by Grainne Quinlan
From Bloomberg Businessweek

The vast neighborhood outside Foxconn Technology’s Guanlan plant in Shenzhen is eerily quiet on a recent Sunday afternoon, normally a day off when the factory workers visit bustling shops to buy bamboo mats, electric fans, flip-flops, and shampoo.

Many of the migrants who moved to Shenzhen and other Chinese factory towns to work have pulled up stakes to go back home for good. One destination is Binghuacun (population 968) in the interior province of Guizhou, more than 670 kilometers (416 miles) away.

“I decided I wanted to start [a fish farm], too. I knew that the water was so much cleaner and better here in Guizhou.”

—Mo Wangqing

Mo Wangqing left Binghuacun at 18 to toil in the coastal factories, making everything from electronics components to wall paneling. Now 36, he returned a year ago. Factory jobs on the coast were drying up, and he sensed opportunity in his home village. A push to develop interior China had brought high-speed rail and expressways to Guizhou, helping spur economic growth. When Mo saw locals running a fish farm near the factory where he worked in Guangxi province, “I decided I wanted to start one, too,” he says. “I knew that the water was so much cleaner and better here in Guizhou—good for raising fish.” Now that he’s launched his fish farm, he plans to open a restaurant in Binghuacun featuring his mountain-farmed fish. He expects tourists to flock to this out-of-the-way place surrounded by steep mountains and rushing rivers.

“Before, we relied on planting rice, corn, and peppers and remittances from our young people who went out to find work,” says Mo Bochun, a village official sitting in the local party service center under a huge poster portraying Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Deng Xiaoping, set above images of President Xi Jinping and his two predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. “Now our migrants are coming back with new skills,” such as a knowledge of computers, he says.

Last year the number of migrants from the countryside edged up 0.4 percent, to a total of 169 million, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. In 2016 the total could fall, says Tom Miller, an analyst for the Beijing-based consulting firm Gavekal Dragonomics. Many of the migrants simply go to nearby cities and townships to live and work. “The flood of rural labor has slowed to a trickle and may dry up altogether,” Miller says. The statistics bureau doesn’t track returning migrants, but Guizhou does: Last year 1.2 million returned to the province, up from 520,000 in 2011.

Under a policy colorfully called “Returning Geese Revitalize Guizhou,” provincial officials are offering returnees free entrepreneurial training, tax waivers for businesses they start, and low-interest loans. Tourism is a priority. “Starting in the 1980s, China’s countryside grew through reliance on manufacturing and processing,” says Sun Zhe, chairman of GoHome, a travel website that helps urbanites enjoy Guizhou’s traditional country life. “Now we think that the service economy and tourism should lift rural China.”

“Being a migrant is not fun,” says Shi Wenjian. “You can’t ever earn that much money, and you are far away from your family.” Shi worked in a cloth-dyeing factory in Zhejiang province before moving back to Guizhou two years ago to live with his wife, 5-year-old son, and 7-year-old daughter. Now he raises free-range chickens at Qianlafang Ecological Agriculture Development, an organic farm and tourist resort in Luodian County, only 70 kilometers from his hometown, where his parents still live. “My mother and father are too old, so I returned to take care of them,” he says. “I can easily go to see them.”

There’s a growing national awareness of the social costs of migration. “I have experienced how lonely it is to grow up lacking in parental love,” says Pan Guofen, 23, who manages e-commerce orders for the organic vegetables, fruit, and meat produced at Qianlafang. While Pan’s parents worked in a factory in Huizhou, in Guangdong province, she was raised by her grandmother before going to a government boarding school. “I will definitely not let my future child become a left-behind child,” she says. “I will find a job near wherever they go to school.”

A survey released by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in April found that one-half of rural Chinese aren’t interested in moving to the cities, citing their age, the need to take care of parents and children, and unfamiliarity with urban life. Two-thirds of those planning to migrate said they intend to return to their villages. “My plan is to save more money, then in the next couple of years, move back home and start my own business, maybe a clothing shop,” says Zhang Chi, 25, who works in a toy factory in Dongguan, which is also in Guangdong province, and is from a village outside the city of Xi’an, in the northwest. “When I was very little, there was a big gap between here and my hometown, but not anymore. Now life is good back there.”

China’s State Council, the country’s chief administrative authority, has issued guidelines to encourage migrant workers, along with college students and demobilized soldiers, to start businesses in their hometowns. Measures include simplifying company registration, cutting income and sales taxes, and setting up special investment zones for returnees’ businesses.

Not everything is likely to go smoothly in this vast reordering of the population. After years of living in cities, returnees don’t have the social networks necessary to succeed in business, says Yang Meng, a 30-year-old migrant from Yibin, Sichuan, working in Shenzhen. “I am already poor, and for people like me who try to start a business in the countryside, the risk is we fail and end up even poorer,” he says. “The countryside can accommodate only some of us. Not all the workers can go home and expect to find a job.”

—With Jasmine Zhao