East of Maobaxiang township, Chongqing Municipality
Distance from Shanghai – 1,280 km
Back on the road after a long winter break dominated by economic crises and fears for the future, my twin mission was to breathe some fresh mountain air and to ask the residents of China’s middle of nowhere the question businessmen all around the world are asking each other: "How are things going with you?"
The answer was that, superficially, things are much the same in the villages as they have been for the past couple of years. But then, it is still also pretty hard to book a table in a good restaurant in Shanghai or San Francisco, in spite of what you read in the newspapers.
There is an impact from the global economic turmoil, of course, and it is subtle. But I would not at this point withdraw my conclusion that China’s rural regions are now peaceful, and will no longer give rise to anything other than localized disputes. This problem, for the Communist Party, is fundamentally an urban problem, including the migrant workers who do not go home and the unemployed university graduates from the country areas who for reasons of face cannot return.
The number of motorcycle riders, China’s rural equivalent of the taxi, waiting by the side of the road for fares was higher than usual. As I walked along a stretch of road between Fengjie and Yunyang, I was constantly being stopped or honked at by passing motorcycle guys hoping to get my custom.
"Where are you going?"
"Tibet, how much?"
But that joke got old pretty fast, and I just waved them away.
I asked why business was so bad, and one motorcycle guy said: "Because there’s no one around."
This wasn’t really an answer.
"But I understood many people are coming home because the factories on the coast are closing," I said.
"No," he said, "most people are still outside working. Not all the factories have closed."
This particular motorcycle guy had spent several years in Shenzhen and had returned last year to look after his family. But he had to accept a big drop in income as a result.
"How much do you make per month riding the motorbike?" I asked.
"Just over RMB1,000 (US$145)," he said. "It’s not enough to support the family."
The motorbike cost RMB6,000 new and there is no barrier to entry into the market. Most rural families now have a motorbike, and as workers come home, the competition on the roads for the reduced number of people moving around will only increase.
I came upon a small suspension bridge over a stream, which brought to mind so many stories by travelers a century and more ago in this land, which until recently was eastern Sichuan province. Isabella Bird and others of my heroes had walked across suspension bridges, and I was eager to share the experience. My suspension bridge, unlike theirs, was supported by steel cables, but I still had doubts.
"Is it safe?" I asked a woman. She said yes, and I clambered down the hillside then gingerly walked across the bridge, on the concrete slats. The bridge shook and swayed as it took my weight and footsteps into account, and it was not a pleasant experience. But I went to the other side, then walked back again, thinking about Isabella as I did so. Now I would be able to say, as she could, "I did it."
I stopped off at a little shop, outside of which were a bunch of motorcyclists, three of whom were playing cards, while the others watched. I sat with them for a while, and asked about life in their little village. The answer was that life was pretty much the same. Most of them had worked outside at some point, but they were now home again. I did not sense discontent. Life was okay, they said. Home is good, the air is fresher, the food is better, less stress in the mountains than in Shenzhen.
My conclusion is that while these people would prefer to have high-paying jobs in Shenzhen, their discontent with returning home, such as it is, is dispersed. And the days and weeks slide silently by, with cards and mahjong, baijiu and CCTV.
Sitting in a restaurant for dinner, I had at the table beside me a middle aged guy with a pretty younger girl.
"What business do you do?" I asked.
"Ah, I do not do business," he said.
"So you’re an official," I said.
He smiled but declined to comment. The girl turned out to be his wife, who runs a restaurant in southwest Sichuan. I asked them about the migrant worker situation. Are they really coming home in hordes as the media is saying?
"Some people have come back, but the Chongqing government is also starting up new projects to employ them," said the man.
He paused. "There, t