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Sieren's China: Rural exodus in the Year of the Monkey

More and more Chinese migrant workers are going home to stay. Not only because of China's faltering economy, but because they want a better quality of life, says DW's Frank Sieren.

Although the Year of the Monkey only starts on Monday, the streets of China's cities have already emptied. I live between the second and third ring roads in Beijing and can now drive without getting bogged down in traffic jams. The factories have closed down for the New Year celebrations and, therefore, there's no smog, the air is clean. Like every year, they will remain closed for a week and some 250 million workers will celebrate at home in the country.

But something is different this year: Many of migrant workers went back home weeks ago and do not plan to return. One reason is the faltering economy which grew only by 6.9 percent last year and is expected to grow only by 6.5 this year. Jobs in manufacturing are becoming scarcer. People with qualifications are less inclined to work in factories or on construction sites. The younger rural Chinese generation is more reluctant to carry out physical work than their parents who were farmers and certainly does not want to move to expensive cities to do this.

Internal migration is decreasing

Frank Sieren *PROVISORISCH*

DW's Frank Sieren

For the first time in 30 years, the number of internal migrants in China sank last year - by about six million. To a certain extent, this is due to the country's demographic development - there are simply fewer migrant workers because of lower birthrates. In addition to this, the Chinese government has also acknowledged that a two-class society has emerged in the huge metropolises of China because of the hukou system which requires each citizen to be registered in a family register and makes moving within China illegal. A sort of caste system has come about in cities, turning internal migrants into second-class citizens who often have no access to social services, healthcare or schools for their children.

While 40 years ago, not even 20 percent of Chinese citizens lived in the city, today the number has risen to 50 percent. By 2020, it is expected to rise to 60 percent. Socially explosive circumstances, which are leading increasingly to protests and dissatisfaction in the population. The government is faced with a dilemma. A reform of the hukou registration system could be very expensive because services are more expensive in cities than in the country. Perhaps the cooled down economy will bring some relief as migrants start to turn their backs on cities.

Healthier lifestyle outside the cities

There's also a new trend: It's not only migrant workers who may not return to work in the cities after the New Year celebrations but white-collar workers, who earn far more than construction workers in Beijing. They are beginning to realize that their chances of getting a flat in Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou are close to nil and to see their future in second-rate or even third-rate cities such as Chongqing, Nanjing or Luoyang.

The government has also supported the development of rural infrastructure and rural investment loans. This year, per capita income in rural areas is expected to exceed 10,000 yuan ($1,500/1,400 euros) for the first time - a faster increase than urban per capita income. Many people are returning to rural regions because of cheaper rents, proximity to relatives, as well as access to unadulterated, unspoiled food.

Opportunities for growth in western China

Beijing is supporting the idea of "rural start-ups" more than ever. Some 40,000 people returning to the southwestern province of Sichuan have registered new businesses. This is not a bad means of opening up new growth opportunities for the Chinese economy and strengthen domestic growth.

DW's Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for over 20 years.

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