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