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China's Reverse Migration: As Orders Dry Up, Factory Workers Head Home

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The promise of prosperity lured Quan Xiaoju from her home in rural China to the assembly lines in the bustling city of Guangzhou. Now, like countless other migrant workers, she is heading back home as the jobs dry up and China's boom comes to an end.

Editor's Note: This feature is part of a SPIEGEL series that will continue all week on how the economic downturn is affecting people and companies around the world. No other downturn in history has hit as many of the world's economies. The current crisis is hitting automobile workers in Detroit, Russian oligarchs and even strong traditional German firms like the chemical giant BASF.

As she bids farewell to Guangzhou, a city of nine million people, there is hardly enough time for a wistful look back -- at the teeming crowds of migrant workers with copious amounts of luggage in front of the city's train station, or at its bold downtown highway, built on stilts, and still packed with cars despite the economic crisis.

The crowd pushes forward relentlessly, literally forcing Quan Xiaoju to enter the station. Xiaoju, a petite migrant worker, quickly places her belongings -- a black-and-white plaid suitcase and a small plastic bag -- on the conveyor belt at the security checkpoint before being pushed onward, then up an escalator and into one of the enormous waiting rooms.

China's global factory is shedding its slave-like workers, cost-effectively and efficiently, almost as if they too were products on an assembly line. They sit in long rows, shoulder-to-shoulder, waiting for the trains that will take them back to their home provinces, to the places they once left for China's industrial east, lured by the promise of prosperity. Xiaoju (her name means "Little Chrysanthemum") finally has time to catch her breath and look around. She has a few more minutes left before her northbound train to Hengyang, in Hunan Province, is scheduled to depart.

The station is busy as it would normally be before the Chinese New Year, when companies in Guangdong Province -- the enormous export factory that borders Hong Kong and includes the burgeoning large cities of Shenzhen and Dongguan -- collectively send armies of migrant workers home on vacation. But this time the exodus is involuntary and unforeseen, and likely to last for an extended period of time -- and the mood is understandably gloomy.

Most travelers are noticeably young, including many women like Xiaoju, who is 17 but looks 14. Almost all of the people waiting here for their trains could tell stories similar to those of three female workers from Hunan who have lost their jobs printing colorful stickers for jeans and are now waiting to leave, carrying full plastic bags. Or the young couple from faraway Chongqing, who worked in a textile factory making sweaters and whose belongings -- including a rice cooker, a fan and mattress -- are now almost blocking the way.

It has only been a few days since Xiaoju lost her job at an export factory, where she used her thin fingers to make cheap silver jewelry. "The foreigners have stopped ordering," the supervisor suddenly informed two-thirds of the employees. "I don't have any more work for you anymore."

Hardly any foreign buyers had appeared at the factory in weeks. The 200 workers must have realized that something was wrong, because the production area was only separated from the office by glass dividers, which enabled their boss to monitor the workers as they sat at long tables, industriously assembling earrings, bracelets and necklaces.

Conversely, Xiaoju and her fellow workers were able to observe the effects of the global crisis on their boss, who increasingly sat around doing nothing.

No Liberation from Rural Poverty

From one week to the next, an eerie silence descended on the normally busy Panyu neighborhood, where the factory was located. At first Xiaoju and her fellow workers noticed other factories closing their gates. And because more and more workers were leaving, many street food vendors quickly dismantled their stands. After that, the billiard tables along the side of the street, where the men would spend what little free time they had, were suddenly empty and abandoned, like a beach town when winter arrives earlier than expected.

Xiaoju was not surprised when she was let go. Nevertheless, she was horrified when her boss admitted to the workers that there was no longer enough money left to pay them the monthly wages they were owed.

Xiaoju jumps up when her train is announced. The crowd begins to surge forward again, as the travelers hurry down several flights of stairs to the platform, where they board the seemingly endless train, which is fully booked. Xiaoju managed to secure a bed in the sleeping car -- a minor success, given that the slow train takes seven long hours to reach Hengyang.

The train starts moving with a jerk, and Xiaoju begins to realize that her life in Guangzhou, one of the most affluent cities in China, has come to an end. Now she knows that by losing her job, she has also lost the prospect, at least for the time being, of permanently liberating herself from rural poverty -- and that she will have to explain this to her parents at home.

She is silent. To distract herself, she types hectic last-minute goodbye text messages into her pink mobile phone, which she bought from the savings left over from her first wages. She could only afford a Chinese-made Jinpeng model, but it looks good and it has a large screen. The purchase was a big step for Xiaoju, whose family doesn't even have a regular telephone at home.

Xiaoju clasps the phone tightly in her hand. It is the most important memento of her working life, and the only luxury item she owns. It cost her the equivalent of €80 ($108) -- and about 160 hours of overtime in the factory.

A few seconds later, her phone flashes, indicating that she has already received her first response. It is her "Laoxiang," an older female migrant worker from her home village, who Xiaoju had originally followed to Guangzhou. She has written to wish her friend good luck.

Following the Experienced to the Mega-Cities

Almost everyone in China who has moved from the countryside to the global factory for the first time befriends a generally older and experienced trailblazer from home. When Xiaoju left her village, after the Chinese New Year's festival, she and seven other girls followed their Laoxiang to Guangzhou. Xiaoju's parents gave her the money for the fare, but it was only enough for standing room on the train. But Xiaoju didn't care, because she was so anxious to get to Guangzhou, one of the mega-cities with which the Chinese associate progress and prosperity. Her Laoxiang had assured her that once she arrived in Guangzhou, she would be able to earn a lot of money for her family.

From an early age, Xiaoju knew that she would have to move away from the village by the time she finished middle school, because there was no future for her there. Her father ekes out a living as a migrant worker on construction sites, and he lives with her mother and their four-year-old son in another large city far away. Her sisters, 11 and 12, live on their grandfather's tiny farm.

When Xiaoju arrived in Guangzhou late in the evening, she was almost blinded by the flashing ads everywhere and the brightly lit windows in 24-hour shops.

On the first night, she slept in her Laoxiang's room. The trip there seemed endless to her, passing one factory after another, each of them a multistory box-like building, the interiors dimly lit with neon lights. The buildings housing the workers were located next to the factories. Xiaoju recognized the crowded lodgings by the laundry that the workers had hung out to dry.

On her first day in Guangzhou, Xiaoju's Laoxing got her a job in a jewelry factory. Finding the job was not difficult. There were an estimated 7,000 jewelry factories in and around Guangzhou at the time, and no one had even mentioned the word "crisis" yet.

China's economy is still growing today, but far too slowly. It is hard to believe that Xiaoju, after only undergoing a 10-day training program, was able to find a job in the next jewelry factory. By then she was a "trained" worker, and her new boss offered her €140 ($190) a month, or twice her previous base wage.

By working overtime, she managed to work 12 hours a day. Overtime is critical for the migrant workers, because it makes for the actual earnings. They can hardly survive on their slim basic wages. Xiaoju's everyday life consisted of hard work. Using a device she compares with a candle, the young worker would pour a liquid silver mixture into a mold for rings. Sometimes the hot silver dripped onto her hands, "and then my skin burned and got red spots," Xiaoju reports. "In a second step, we had to insert small diamonds into the rings -- but the stones weren't real, just made of glass."

Every day, after coming from work shortly before midnight, Xiaoju fell, exhausted, onto her mattress. "Most of the time, I didn't even have the energy to wash my face," she says.

Her mobile phone lights up again. This time it is a text message from a friend with whom she shared a room and the mattress in a building near the factory. It was cheaper than at the factory, where eight people were housed in each room and people had to wait in line for the showers.

Xiaoju's friend will also have to return home soon. The girls often comforted each other when they felt homesick, or when their boss cursed at them because they weren't working fast enough. Then they would lie in bed together at night, just as Xiaoju did at home, where she and her siblings slept in the same bed.

Hordes of Chinese migrant workers stream out of the cities.
AFP

Hordes of Chinese migrant workers stream out of the cities.

Every morning the two friends had to report for work at the factory. During their long working hours, they would often work feverishly in anticipation of the two days they had off each month. During their time off they would take the subway into downtown Guangzhou, strolling through the garishly lit shopping malls or admiring expensive designer fashions in the boutique windows. Then they would buy the imitations in low-priced markets, and Xiaoju was convinced that she would never be able to live in the countryside again.

At least until she was let go, Xiaoju believed that the day would come when she would make as much money as her boss. He was from Hunan and started out as a migrant worker, in a jewelry factory, before founding his own factory 10 years ago.

As recently as the 2008 Summer Olympics, the Chinese economy was still bursting with energy, and no one expected the boom, which has lasted for years, to end anytime soon. The workers in the jewelry factory had so much work to do that their boss turned down their request to be able to watch the games on TV. They were only allowed to watch the opening ceremony. "It was beautiful," says Xiaoju, "but I was so tired that I fell asleep in the middle of it."

Now that she is on the train, somewhere between Guangzhou and Hengyang, Xiaoju dozes off again. The past few days have put her nerves on edge. For days, she and her fellow workers persisted at the factory, hoping that their boss would at least pay them the one month of wages they were owed. In the end, they left when the boss promised to send them their wages later on. Xiaoju believes her boss, noting that he too comes from Hunan.

'No One Can Be Held Responsible'

At least Xiaoju's boss did not simply abandon the factory, escaping at night, like the owners of other bankrupt factories in the neighborhood. Xiaoju heard how angry workers seized the machines in those factories. And in some factories, she says, the workers even organized gangs of thugs to collect their outstanding wages.

But these have been isolated cases so far. Most of the laid-off workers take the crisis personally, not politically. For "Little Chrysanthemum," too, the government in Beijing is far away. She has few expectations of the country's leaders, nor does she blame them for anything. "No one can be held responsible for the crisis," she says, as if she were talking about a natural disaster. "It strikes everyone in the same way."

Xiaoju is now looking excitedly out of the window at the fields, where the crops have already been harvested, as the train approaches her hometown. Other migrant workers are already packing up their things. They will be with their families soon, where they can at least expect to get something to eat and have a roof over their heads. The potential for unrest coming from migrant workers is weakened by the fact that they are so widely distributed among the villages.

The train stops in Hengyang, an industrial city of more than seven million people. From there, Xiaoju must travel another hour and a half by minibus to her village. Acrid smog wafts across the mountainous landscape. It comes from the exhaust fumes from the steel mills and from the countless fires farmers have set to burn their fields.

The stench doesn't bother Xiaoju. In fact, it reminds her of her days in school. She would have liked to continue going to high school, but her family lacked the necessary money. "Perhaps I could learn something new now," she thinks to herself, "to get a better job." But then she shakes her head immediately. "If I went back to school, my father would have to work even harder."

The closer she gets to her village, the more uncertain the future seems to Xiaoju. Perhaps her father will urge her to join the army, where a relative is already serving. It would be a secure job. But the idea of military training fills her with horror.

Xiaoju must climb up a narrow path to reach her grandfather's house. She uses her mobile phone to light the way. It is dark and many houses are empty. Their owners have also moved to the cities to seek work as migrant workers.

Xiaoju pushes open the wooden door and greets her grandfather. Nothing has changed. The bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling, the large bed, the earthen floor and the only symbol of progress: the permanently operating television set.

They exchange a few words, but Xiaoju hasn't quite arrived yet. Using her mobile phone, she must first send a series of SMS messages -- to Guangzhou and to her former counterparts in the global factory.

"Little Chrysanthemum" cannot imagine that the crisis will last long, and that she will have to hold out here forever. "There are so many factories in China," she says, "and at some point they will have to start making their goods again."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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