The end of the Great Migration: China's workers return home


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    From factory worker to business owner: Song Yanmei has returned home from a coastal factory to take part in a tourist boom in her hometown of Xijiang, Guizhou province. -It's one of many stories of Chinese migrants returning home from what was the largest human migration on the planet.

    - Rob Schmitz/Marketplace

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    Globalization has reached Yang Guangxue's village in the form of a pile of orders for his silver work. His eldest son has returned home from a factory job on the coast to help with the family trade.

    - Rob Schmitz/Marketplace

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    Yang Guangxue's neighbor works on an order that'll be exported to Africa.

    - Rob Schmitz/Marketplace

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    The village of Kongbai, set in the mountains of Eastern Guizhou.

    - Rob Schmitz/Marketplace

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    Song Yanmei left her hometown in 2003 to work at a textile factory on the coast. Her hometown of Xijiang is now a prime tourist destination for travelers in this part of China.

    - Rob Schmitz/Marketplace

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    The village of Kongbai sits among the terraced paddies of Eastern Guizhou. More and more young people from these villages are returning home to partake in an investment boom in China's interior.

    - Rob Schmitz/Marketplace

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    Workers mill about in a labor market outside the city of Chengdu, Sichuan province. For the past twenty years, Sichuan has contributed one of the largest populations of migrants for China's coastal factories. Now, workers are returning home, finding opportunity here.

    - Rob Schmitz/Marketplace

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    Workers line up with hand-painted signs at a labor fair in the city of Chengdu, advertising their skills.

    - Rob Schmitz/Marketplace

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    Tourists dress up in Miao costumes in the town of Xijiang, Guizhou province. The city is now enjoying a revenue boost from tourism.

    - Rob Schmitz/Marketplace

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    Tour buses in the town of Xijiang.

    - Rob Schmitz/Marketplace

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    Piles of earrings that'll be exported from the tiny village of Kongbai all the way to Africa.

    - Rob Schmitz/Marketplace

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    A typical scene in the countryside of Guizhou. China's poorest province is undergoing an investment boom, which means new expressways are being built through traditional villages.

    - Rob Schmitz/Marketplace

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    A pile of unfinished jewelry sits on the floor of Yang Guangxue's home in Kongbai, Guizhou.

    - Rob Schmitz/Marketplace

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    Signs advertising skills of the workers who sit above them at a labor market in Chengdu.

    - Rob Schmitz/Marketplace

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    A red electronic board advertises job vacancies at a labor market outside of Chengdu.

    - Rob Schmitz/Marketplace

It’s not exactly a welcome home party, but it’ll do. Thousands of workers mill about inside a building resembling an airplane hangar outside the city of Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province. They scan local job listings on a red electronic board the size of a jumbotron. Nearly all the people here are locals who recently returned home from factory jobs on China’s coast.

Zhang Xianjun just returned from a factory in Guangzhou, where he assembled plastic parts. He left home ten years ago, joining a quarter of a billion other Chinese in the largest human migration the world has known. But times have changed. These days, factories are migrating. Companies are relocating manufacturing from China’s coast to inland provinces like Sichuan and Henan, where the labor came from in the first place. Zhang can now choose between making iPads at Foxconn or microprocessors at Intel. Both companies are hiring here. "Everything here has modernized," says Zhang, "I live three hours away in a small town. Now my hometown even has an industrial park where I could work. It’s a big change."

After years of focusing on its coast, China is now investing in its interior. Chengdu, for example, enjoyed fifteen percent GDP growth last year. Ben Schwall is a factory consultant in the former boomtown of Dongguan. He says all of this began in 2009, after the financial crisis in the U.S. Americans stopped buying things, and millions of Chinese factory workers were suddenly unemployed. They returned home and realized home wasn’t so bad anymore. "Cost of living was a lot cheaper," says Schwall, "You can live at home. Mom cooks good. you’re not locked in a dorm room with six people. You can perhaps sleep with your wife, you can see your children. Hey! Being at home was not so bad."

Song Yanmei bargains with a customer at her silver shop in the town of Xijiang, in Southwest China’s Guizhou province. In 2003, Song left her hometown to work at a textile factory on the coast. Back then, Xijiang was a poor mountain town in China’s poorest province. Everyone who could leave, she says, left. While she was gone, government leaders realized her picturesque town --- home to the ethnic hill tribe known as the Miao people -- had the potential to be a tourist destination.

Investment followed, and so did Song. She returned home in 2008 and started her own business. "Our traditional craft of making silver jewelry was dying because all the young people were leaving to go to the coast," recalls Song, "but investment and tourism changed all of that, and we’re back now. I make more selling silver here at home than I did as a factory worker."

And she gets to raise her five year-old son; he’s doing his homework in the back of the shop. But the perks extend past the family. Song’s shop means silversmiths in surrounding villages now have more work. In the nearby village of Kongbai, Yang Guangxue makes a traditional Miao necklace. This village is so remote that nearly everyone here shares the same surname.

But times are changing for Kongbai. Yang’s filling more orders these days thanks to the increase in tourism to the region. "I learned silver work from my father, and he from his father," says Yang, "For hundreds of years, it’s all we did here. Then China opened up to the world, and my sons had a choice."

All three of his sons chose to leave.

Yang receives a call from his youngest son, who assembles backpacks at a factory in Dongguan. He’s checking-in to see how his oldest brother is doing. Yang says his oldest son just returned home after years of working with his brothers in the big city. Now he’s tired of factory work, and he’s ready to learn the family trade -- and help dad with an increasing pile of orders. Some of the latest orders, says Yang, are earrings that’ll be sold at shops in Africa.

Suddenly, says Yang, home doesn’t seem so lonely anymore.

Kai Ryssdal: One of the biggest things -- maybe the biggest thing -- that's happened in the Chinese economy over the past 20 years has been the flood of people. I'm talking hundreds of millions of people, who've moved from inland villages to the big coastal cities to find jobs. Jobs making a lot of the things you and I use every day -- shoes, clothes, computers, everything.

But the Chinese government is spending billions of dollars to develop the interior of the country, which means people can work where they live. Today our China correspondent Rob Schmitz wraps up his series about the end -- and the reversal -- of the Great Migration.


Rob Schmitz: It’s not exactly a welcome home party, but it’ll do. Thousands of workers mill about inside a building resembling an airplane hangar outside the city of Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province. They scan local job listings on a red electronic board the size of a jumbotron. Nearly all the people I talk to here are locals who recently returned home from factory jobs on China’s coast.

Zhang Xianjun just returned from a factory in Guangzhou, where he assembled plastic parts. He left home ten years ago, joining a quarter of a billion other Chinese in the largest human migration the world has known. But times have changed. These days, factories are migrating. Companies are relocating manufacturing from China’s coast to inland provinces like Sichuan and Henan, where the labor came from in the first place. Zhang can now choose between making iPads at Foxconn or microprocessors at Intel. Both companies are hiring here.

Zhang Xianjun: Everything here has modernized. I live three hours away in a small town. Now my hometown even has an industrial park where I could work. It’s a big change.

After years of focusing on its coast, China is now investing in its interior. Chengdu, for example, enjoyed fifteen percent GDP growth last year. Ben Schwall is a factory consultant in the former boomtown of Dongguan. He says all of this began in 2009, after the financial crisis in the U.S. Americans stopped buying things, and millions of Chinese factory workers were suddenly unemployed. They returned home and realized home wasn’t so bad anymore.

Benjamin Schwall: Cost of living was a lot cheaper. You can live at home. Mom cooks good. you’re not locked in a dorm room with six people. You can perhaps sleep with your wife, you can see your children. Hey! Being at home was not so bad.

Song Yanmei bargains with a customer at her silver shop in the town of Xijiang, in Southwest China’s Guizhou province. In 2003, Song left her hometown to work at a textile factory on the coast. Back then, Xijiang was a poor mountain town in China’s poorest province. Everyone who could leave, she says, left. While she was gone, government leaders realized her picturesque town -- home to the ethnic hill tribe known as the Miao people--had the potential to be a tourist destination.

Investment followed, and so did Song. She returned home in 2008 and started her own business.

Song Yanmei: Our traditional craft of making silver jewelry was dying because all the young people were leaving to go to the coast. But investment and tourism changed all of that, and we’re back now. I make more selling silver here at home than I did as a factory worker.

And she gets to raise her 5-year-old son; he’s doing his homework in the back of the shop. But the perks extend past the family. Song’s shop means silversmiths in surrounding villages now have more work. In the nearby village of Kongbai, Yang Guangxue makes a traditional Miao necklace. This village is so remote that nearly everyone here shares the same surname.

But times are changing for Kongbai. Yang’s filling more orders these days thanks to the increase in tourism to the region.

Yang Guangxue: I learned silver work from my father, and he from his father. For hundreds of years, it’s all we did here. Then China opened up to the world, and my sons had a choice.

All three of his sons chose to leave.

Yang receives a call from his youngest son, who assembles backpacks at a factory in Dongguan. He’s checking in to see how his oldest brother is doing. Yang says his oldest son just returned home after years of working with his brothers in the big city. Now he’s tired of factory work, and he’s ready to learn the family trade -- and help dad with an increasing pile of orders. Some of the latest orders, says Yang, are earrings that’ll be sold at shops in Africa.

Suddenly, says Yang, home doesn’t seem so lonely anymore.

In Kongbai, Guizhou province, I’m Rob Schmitz for Marketplace.

About the author

Rob Schmitz is Marketplace’s China correspondent in Shanghai.

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