They number some 150 million. Chinese workers who have left their rural homes to take advantage of wages more than five times higher in towns and cities. They built office blocks and Olympic stadia, churned out factory goods to be sold all over the world. They were at the front of the Chinese economic charge. But when hurdles began to appear they were the first to fall.
In the last 30 years Chinese GDP has risen at an annual average of 9.8 percent. Last year it hit almost 12 percent. Despite a good first half of 2008, IMF forecasts suggest just growth this year will have slipped back down to 9.7 percent. In 2009, most analysts say China needs to grow by eight percent. Below that figure and the country risks a huge social crisis fuelled by massive unemployment. The situation is already desperate for those out of work. Many of the unemployed in China can only collect welfare payments in their native region so those who have migrated do not even have the safety net of social security. That is one of the reasons for growing anger that has led to rare public protests. “It’s very difficult to find a job nowadays. It’s very difficult to feed ourselves. Those who have gone home also face difficulties. It is hard to go home and it’s hard to find a job here. All of us are struggling,” explains one jobless migrant. Exports have actually fallen for the first time in seven years as consumers in the rest of the world cut their spending. The sickness has now infected China, just as it was preparing to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms. He told the Chinese that “to get rich is glorious” and while hundreds of millions of Chinese people have become wealthy, hundreds of millions more still live in poverty. The country’s leaders have announced a 450 billion euro stimulus package that includes tax and interest rate cuts. The hope is that more domestic demand will get China’s economic engine running smoothly again.