Every year the festivities for Chinese New Year trigger one of the world's biggest annual migrations of humans. Almost 200 million people in China are on the move. But this year as China prepares to celebrate the beginning of the year of the ox on January 26, the mood is subdued. That’s because the global economic downturn has hit China hard. Exports, one of the backbones of China’s recent rapid growth, are down. For millions of Chinese who are returning to their villages and home towns, tough times lie ahead.
The long ride home from Beijing
It’s a freezing morning outside Beijing’s central railway station. The square is filled with travellers, mainly migrant workers. Every day before the new year on January 26 tens of thousands flood into the square either to buy tickets or to wait for their trains.Some travellers pull fancy new suitcases on wheels while others carry their belongings in cheap nylon bags or fertilizer sacks. For most migrants the Lunar New Year is the only time they can leave their jobs to see their parents, spouses and children back home.
But this year the joy about the holidays is tainted by uncertainty regarding the future. "In the new year I won’t come back to Beijing. It’s too difficult here", says Huang, a migrant worker from Sichuan.
"I have work for another six months", says another migrant who works on one of the many building sites in Beijing. "Afterwards I don’t know... we’ll have to look for new jobs. I am not too worried though – our boss is going to find something for us!"
Difficult months aheadBut the man’s optimism is not shared by everyone. The World Bank warns that China’s growth rate in 2009 could slow to just 7.5 percent. That amounts to a recession in a country that is used to double digit growth figures. The World Bank’s chief economist in Beijing, Louis Kuijs says:
"We believe that China is going to face a difficult six months, the coming six months. If things start to stabilise internationally later on in 2009, then that should also have a positive impact on China."
Only domestic consumers can help
But whether things pick up in the US or Europe and whether that trickles down to China is all but certain. Its dependency on exports is part of China's problem. Only more domestic consumption can create a more sustainable pattern of growth. Louis Kuijs says a 600 billion dollar stimulus package by the Beijing government to cushion the blow of the economic crisis is not enough.
"But the stimulus coming from the package provides a good opportunity for the government to take more rebalancing measures, rebalancing in terms of more spending on health, education and the social safety net."The World Bank says people in China will only start feeling comfortable about spending if they no longer have to worry about old age, medical costs or education.
The migrants at Beijing’s railway station know they’ll have to fend for themselves in the coming months. Huang, the migrant worker from Sichuan, says he wants to try his luck elsewhere after the Spring Festival, maybe in the city of Xi’an.
"I’ve heard there’s plenty of work in Xi’an", he says. "I know people there and there are lots of companies." And with that he shoulders his heavy nylon bag and makes his way to the platform. The journey home will take two or three days.