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Migrant workers leaving megacities in search of more stable lives in third- and fourth- tier cities.

(Global Times)    09:09, June 12, 2019

After spending her last Dragon Boat Festival in Beijing and visiting some well-known sights she never got the chance to see in the past decade, Chen Shu, 42, packed her bags and boarded the train back to her hometown, bidding farewell to the city that had filled her with optimism, excitement, then worry.

She is no longer a disposable labour trembling among the crowd in Beijing, but a more dignified migrant worker who had made contributions to the world's second largest economy.

A total of 7.8 million people have returned to their hometowns to start businesses, of whom 5.4 million, or 70 percent, are migrant workers, the news office of Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs revealed in January 2019.

The average age of people returning home to start a business is about 45 years old, and 40 percent have a high school degree or higher. Around 54 percent of them use information technology to start own business, and 89 percent start a business with partners, mainly covering agricultural products processing, leisure tourism and e-commerce industries.

Taking the initiative

The demand for high-level skills in big cities, Beijing's increasingly tight population policies and the rising costs of living are driving more migrant workers away. Chen Shu came to Beijing from her hometown of Zhumadian, Central China's Henan Province, in 2009, making living selling pancakes to morning commuters.

Like most workers, she has spent the past few years living in fear of her rented apartment being torn down and she would be asked to leave at short notice.

From her very first day in Beijing, she faced multiple uncertainties: uncertainty about a job, a residence, her wellbeing, and even how long she would be able to stay in this fast-moving city, Chen told the Global Times.

Three years ago, when she first heard people talking about the "low end population," she told herself, "it is to weed out people like me." Even after living in Beijing for more than a decade, the group is still referred to as a floating population. From then, she started to think about other ways that she could make her life more stable. But it was only when she heard about the introduction of the Alipay e-commerce platform in her hometown that she finally made up her mind to leave.

She had a vague feeling that it might be a rare chance for her to take advantage of a faster growing economy in the rural community. "People in my hometown know little about e-commerce. If I can take my chance and become a pioneer, I could make as much money as in the city."

Chen seems confident in her "golden idea," though she has yet to come up with a concrete plan.

In the last two years, a number of migrant workers who used to work or run businesses in large and medium-sized cities or developed coastal areas have returned to their hometowns with technological knowhow, skills, funds and vision. 

Losing their appeal

Two sets of data stood out in the National Bureau of Statistics 2018 migrant workers monitoring survey: First, the total number of migrant workers increased by 1.84 million, or 0.6 percent, the lowest growth rate in the past 10 years, which normally fluctuates between 1.5 percent and 2 percent each year. Second, there were 2.04 million fewer migrant workers in cities that year than in 2017, down 1.5 percent, the highest drop in history.

On the one hand, the pressures of life in megacities are making them less appealing for many of the new generation of young workers. On the other, the decrease is the result of the country's efforts to close the economic gap between urban and rural areas.

The National Development and Reform Commission, the country's economic planner, issued a policy in 2018 requiring local government to provide more grants for returning migrant workers.

The Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security also issued a plan for 2019-2022 promoting stable and high-quality employment for the new generation of migrant workers, in a bid to maintain stable rural development.

The specific measures include providing job skills in non-agricultural industries within one month to workers who have registered for training; encouraging enterprises to set up apprenticeship programs for employed migrant workers; and conducting e-commerce training for would-be and early-stage businesspeople.

It is definitely crucial to systematically guide the population to other cities and regions at the policy level, but simple forced eviction measures should never be adopted, Lu Linhui, a professor at the department of Sociology of Peking University, said in a previous media interview.

Jiang Tao, 30, decided to go back to his hometown in Luquan Yi and Miao Autonomous County, Southwest China's Yunnan Province, from Guangzhou, South China's Guangdong Province, this Qingming Festival in April with his family.

As a food deliveryman, he can earn about 8,000 yuan ($1157.2) a month in his hometown, thanks to a recent boom in the digital and e-commerce industry in Yunnan Province that has driven an expansion in online transactions. Recently, the family moved from a rented house of 50 square meters to a commercial house of 110 square meters in Luquan.

Last year, online retail sales in Yunnan Province reached 77.941 billion yuan, a year-on-year growth of more than 40 percent, a large part of which came from increased food delivery orders, Xinhua News Agency reported.

Taking a chance

Wang Lin (pseudonym), who migrated to Guangzhou together with Jiang Tao, recently looked for another city to settle down following layoffs in the factory where he worked. But he has no connections, no money, and no idea what to do for a living if he returns to his hometown. He ended up moving to a third-tier city near his home.

With manufacturing, real estate, and many traditional industries moving to inner cities, China's central and western provinces have set up industrial cooperation platforms and built intelligent industrial parks, drawing more and more migrant workers from big cities.

According to the National Bureau of Statistics, the number of migrant workers employed in eastern China, including Beijing, Shanghai, Guangdong, Hainan and other developed coastal regions, fell by 1.85 million, or 1.2 percent, from the previous year.

The number of migrant workers in the Pearl River Delta fell by 1.86 million, or 3.9 percent. In 2018, migrant worker numbers in the east continued to decline, while the figure in the central and western regions increased by 3.78 million.

As the world's largest labor-intensive contract electronics manufacturer, the layout of Foxconn's production base reflects this trend. Since 2009, Foxconn moved from Shenzhen and Shanghai to Sichuan, Henan and Hubei provinces.

Third- and fourth-tier cities have now become primary destinations for migrant workers flowing out of megacities.

That is not to say that every worker who returns home can start up a successful business.

Many point out that starting a business at home or in a new city is no easy matter, especially for laborers like Wang Lin who holds only a middle school certificate and has struggled to find jobs other than on a factory assembly line.

The National Bureau of Statistics survey revealed that most businesses set up by returning migrant workers remain at a very primary level, due to their limited education and management experience.

They tend to rely more on themselves for initial investment, and expect to receive quick government support such as loans and subsidiaries, but sometimes become frustrated by unfair local practices, even corruption.

Despite these difficulties, Chen Shu still feels hopeful about her near future in her hometown. Now, the family will no longer have to constantly worry about providing proof of identity to authorities, she said. To prove her points, she took out more than 30 certificates she had prepared for her daughter to attend a public elementary school in Beijing before their departure.

Going back also makes her feel more secure, as she is covered by subsidized medical and educational services.

She said that if she fails in her business in the next few years, she will consider going to Xiong'an New Area in North China's Hebei Province to join the fellow villagers who have gone looking for opportunities there. 

(For the latest China news, Please follow People's Daily on Twitter and Facebook)(Web editor: Xian Jiangnan, Bianji)

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