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Fear and hope in the Year of the Ox

With millions of workers losing their jobs and dire predictions of social unrest, the Chinese bubble appears to have burst. The BBC's Michael Bristow in Beijing considers what 2009 will bring for the world's most populous nation.

Migrant workers leave Beijing for home
Many migrant workers have already lost their jobs

After travelling hundreds of miles on crammed trains, China's army of migrant workers are at home enjoying the Chinese New Year.

These men and women leave their workplaces in the country's booming cities once a year to travel back to their villages and families.

Usually, they go back to work after China's biggest holiday is over. But this year many of them will not be leaving their villages again.

The global economic slump has hit China's manufacturing sector, which means many migrant workers have no jobs to go back to.

This makes the government nervous. Officials believe unemployed rural people could become restless and lobby for political change.

They fear 2009 could be a year of increased social unrest in China - and they are bracing themselves to deal with it.

'Marginalised workers'

No-one seems to know for sure how many migrant workers there are in China, but there could be around 200 million - perhaps more.

The government has already acknowledged that millions have already lost their jobs because their factories have closed down.

"We've seen a large number of migrant workers returning home. This is partly due to the global financial crisis," Ma Jiantang, head of China's National Bureau of Statistics, admitted recently.

Most migrant workers have a small plot of land to go back to - but little else. In China, there is no well-developed social welfare system for jobless villagers.

Chinese people praying at a temple in Beijing
Chinese people are hoping 2009 will be another boom year

This is something that worries Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch.

"China's massive migrant worker population is already socially, economically, and legally marginalised and is uniquely vulnerable to the global slowdown's effects on China," he said.

Human Rights Watch is calling on the Chinese government to give migrant workers more help during these difficult economic times.

But it seems the government already understands the problem. It has announced a six-point plan to help migrant workers who find themselves without a job.

It will provide retraining, give them priority in construction jobs and guarantee land rights for those who remain in their villages.

And officials seem well aware of what could happen if they do not act. A state-run magazine recently warned that growing unemployment could lead to unrest.

China's massive migrant worker population is already socially, economically, and legally marginalised.
Brad Adams, Human Rights Watch

"In 2009, Chinese society may face even more conflicts and clashes that will test even more the governing abilities of all levels of the party and government," one commentator told Outlook Magazine.

Rising unemployment has come at a bad time for China; there are a number of important anniversaries this year that could act as a focal point for dissatisfaction.

On 4 June it will be 20 years since the killings in and around Tiananmen Square, and on 1 October the communists will celebrate 60 years of rule in China.

A group of disgruntled academics, lawyers and activists have already called for political change by publishing a document called Charter 08.

Despite all this, there are some who believe that unemployment is not such a great threat to social stability.

Wang Tao, a China analyst at UBS Securities, said the country had been through a period of high unemployment before - and survived.

Tough year ahead

He said that between 1997 and 2002 about 35 million urban workers were laid off as China restructured its state-run businesses.

While the number of jobless could be similar this year, the situation is now less volatile, he said in a report to investors a few weeks ago.

"Migrant workers, the biggest category of potential job losers, are less organised compared to workers 10 years ago and, in most cases, have a plot of family land as a social safety net," he wrote.

"We think large-scale unrest that threatens general social stability and overall investor confidence is unlikely."

But not everyone shares this view, including Steven Tsang, a fellow at St Antony's College at the UK's Oxford University.

"We will not see the end of Communist Party rule, but 2009 is going to be very difficult - and the party understands this," he said.

And, as Mr Tsang pointed out, it is not only unemployed migrant workers that the country's leadership has to worry about.

There are expected to be about 6 million new graduates looking for work this year.

They expect more, and are more able to articulate their demands - and so could be the most difficult group to appease.

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