Page last updated at 23:11 GMT, Thursday, 14 May 2009 00:11 UK

China goes farming as factories close

By Juliana Liu
Asia Business Report, Hunan province, China

Rice field in Golden Spring village
For urban Chinese, the rice fields seem alien.

Farming is entirely new to Bu Zhonghua.

With a pale, unwrinkled face, he still has the look of the white collar manager he was until late last year.

At just 34, he has spent half his life working in neighbouring Guangdong province.

"My life has changed enormously," he said, taking a break from working his family's field.

"I can't even afford to pay my phone bill these days. They cut off phone service last month."

Going home

In Hunan province, the rice paddies have not looked so busy in years.

Bu Zhonghua off to the rice paddy
The Beijing government should give us more support and help
Bu Zhonghua

Extra pairs of hands are preparing the fields for the spring planting season.

Millions of former migrant workers have returned to their ancestral villages after the country's economic miracle fizzled.

At least 20 million factory workers in China lost their jobs in the space of a few months in 2009,

Several high-profile protests, mostly over unpaid wages, led to predictions of rampant social unrest throughout the country.

They never happened.

Widespread impact

Mr Bu does not hold the government responsible for his predicament - neither in Beijing nor in Washington.

"The Beijing government should give us more support and help," he says. "But I know they are trying.

"For example, they are trying to boost domestic consumption, in order to create more jobs."

But though he does not blame US policy makers, he nevertheless feels that the economic slowdown in the US is having an impact in China.

"It's the US consumer who has stopped buying," he says. "Look at the effect it has had on China. The impact has been widespread."

Taxing tasks

Mr Bu and his wife, Huang Zaomei, 27, met in Guangdong's migrant worker circles.

Huang Zaomei
Everything is new to me. Even cooking three meals a day. Before, I would just go to the canteen when I was hungry
Huang Zaomei

Between them, they used to take home about 3,000 yuan ($440; £296) a month, an average amount for urban workers.

Now, they live with his parents, and off their savings.

Ms Huang was not born in a farming family, so she has found the adjustment to rural life particularly difficult.

She has gone from making clothing for export to becoming a housewife and rice farmer.

"I never thought I'd have to do this after getting married," she says.

"Farming is so taxing. I'm not used to it.

"Everything is new to me. Even cooking three meals a day. Before, I would just go to the canteen when I was hungry."

Factory futures

Village official Tang Wu says a trickle of returnees was turning into a flood.

His number one priority was to be on guard against potential causes of social instability.

Mr Tang is particularly concerned about alcoholism and problem gambling.

"In our village, about 4,000 people used to work in the cities," he says.

"Now, we have almost 1,000 returnees.

"The biggest difference to people's lives is in their individual standards of living. They are worse off than before."

But despite the new and unexpected hardship, there are few signs of social unrest in Golden Springs village.

It is rice planting season. Most returnees are simply biding their time, either farming or dreaming up new business ideas, until the factories start hiring again.

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