According to government estimates, about 20 million migrant workers ended the Lunar New Year holiday without a job, a pool of unemployed the size of Australia.
Beijing has been surprisingly forthcoming about its concerns. Chen Xiwen, the director of the office of the central leading group on rural work, said in early February that "a large number of jobless migrant workers returning to rural homes … is a new factor impacting this year’s social stability."
These statements appear to suggest that unrest is an inevitable outcome of the economic downturn.
Except that it’s rather more complicated than that. The idea of a cohesive group of 20 million newly laid-off workers with a single grievance is fundamentally misleading. These workers come from all across China, and in returning home, they are similarly dispersing to all corners of the country.
At most, there will be pockets of disturbances, the so-called "mass incidents" that flare up periodically and die off quickly.
But even here, there are signs of improvement. Public Security Minister Meng Jianzhu has called for caution in deploying police forces to deal with mass incidents. A lighter hand, it is hoped, will help to avoid escalation.
Also likely to help in the short term is a focus on developing the rural economy. Beijing is pouring money into improving infrastructure and creating jobs in the countryside through measures like the recently announced plan to establish 150,000 stores in rural areas by the end of the year.
However, despite a potentially softer approach to policing and continued government efforts at boosting rural economies, real problems remain. The piecemeal rural programs that have been attempted – a store network here, a voucher for electronics purchases there – stop short of real reform.
Furthermore, despite recent headlines, demographic forces continue to push China’s population into cities, not back to the countryside, and there will be an increasing need for jobs to absorb a swelling urban workforce. Beijing’s moves have so far been reactive, when what is needed is a plan that can anticipate and correct for future changes. Just throwing money at a problem as intractable as unemployment doesn’t make it go away.
For now, towns will have to deal with returning workers competing for locally scarce resources and jobs, and families that once relied on sons and daughters in coastal factories to support meager rural incomes will face tough times. Dealing with these will be a difficult task, even without simultaneously planning for a demographic shift.
Still, if Beijing hopes to ensure social stability in the years to come, that is the task it will have to take on.