The number of Chinese migrant workers who have lost their jobs and given up looking for work in the cities has now topped 20 million – roughly equal to the total population of Australia.
That figure was reached through an exhaustive nationwide survey carried out by the Ministry of Agriculture and is double the figure of 10 million announced just one month earlier by China’s Ministry of Human Resources and Social Services.
The survey captured only those who have given up and gone back to their home towns and villages after losing their jobs in the factories, construction sites and restaurants of China’s boomtowns. Those who have been laid off but stayed in the cities to hunt for work were not included.
The Communist Party is no doubt glad that those 20 million potential troublemakers have dispersed throughout the countryside. Many of them will return to a plot of collectively owned land allotted to them by the state. In recent years, this safety net has been eroded in many places by the widespread seizure of land by local governments that have sold the land to commercial or industrial projects.
This issue has been identified by senior officials as one of the leading causes of protests, riots and uprisings across the country, along with pollution, mishandling or stealing of collectively owned assets and the forced relocation of people to make way for projects like the Three Gorges Dam.
Fears of unrest
The flood of 20 million unemployed migrants – around 15% of the estimated 130 million total – was named in February as the newest and most serious potential cause of unrest, especially at a time when China’s agricultural sector is itself beginning to feel the effects of the global economic crisis and the worst drought in 50 years.
With a highly unusual degree of candor, one senior Beijing official after another has warned of rising social instability and the political threat posed by widespread layoffs.
One has to wonder what has made the party so willing to publicly acknowledge its weakness in the face of hard economic times. Why publicize the 20 million figure when the results of thousands of similar internal studies never see the light of day?
Some of the more cynical China watchers in the diplomatic corps in Beijing believe this talk about revolting peasants is part of a concerted strategy aimed at creating cohesion amongst the ruling elite and the urban middle class. These groups are the party’s real political base and a far more dangerous potential threat to authoritarian rule than disgruntled peasants, who are probably preoccupied with trying to grow enough so they can eat.
A much smaller but more worrying figure is the estimate of 1.5 million unemployed recent tertiary graduates by the end of last year. The estimate came from a government-affiliated think tank and it has not been widely repeated by senior officials.
The party has been dealing with widespread isolated unrest among the peasantry for years but with 6.4 million more graduates expected to enter the workforce later this year, the specter of huge numbers of angry educated unemployed must be keeping the leadership awake at night.
A glance through China’s recent history provides some memorable examples of how elites react when the economy is tanking and rulers are seen as unresponsive to the people’s needs.
While many in the urban elite seem to despise their country cousins, it might not take too many quarters of negative growth and job hunting for distaste to evolve into empathy, especially for those disgruntled migrants who also happen to be well-educated.
Indeed, Mao Zedong himself was the well-educated son of a small landowner who turned to revolution when society failed to offer him the opportunities he felt he deserved.
Even further back, Hong Xiuquan, leader of the 19th Century pseudo-Christian apocalyptic Taiping Rebellion, was also a well-educated young man. He launched what some claim is still the bloodiest civil war in the history of the world after failing the civil service examinations four times.
As peasant farmers with city tastes and high expectations flood back to the countryside, every Mandarin in China has to be wondering whether another Mao or Hong is among them.