Page last updated at 23:39 GMT, Sunday, 11 October 2009 00:39 UK

China's reverse migration

Li Ya Fang and her class
Some of Li Ya Fang's students are the children of migrant workers

By Chris Hogg
BBC News, Yunnan

Li Ya Fang does not look or sound much like a migrant worker.

For a start she has a college degree - she is wearing her university T-shirt when we meet.

But technically she is a migrant working many hundreds of kilometres from home - three days' train ride from Shanghai, where she went to school.

She is working as a teacher near Pu'er, in Yunnan province in the south-west of China. The Communist Youth League sent her here.

Since 2003 more than 1,400 young people from Shanghai have been sent by the Communist Youth League to the interior of China.

Usually there are about 200 of them each year. This year the figure was nearly 50% higher - 295.

The scheme was oversubscribed - there were about five applicants for each position, which is why they increased the size of the programme.

The financial crisis has made it harder for graduates to find work, and a one-year job working in development in the west looks good on the resume.


It also serves the purpose of giving you something to do while you wait for the job market to improve.

Li Ya Fang's reasons for coming were more altruistic, she says.

"I came here because I saw a banner on my university campus. 'Go West,' it said, 'go to the place where your country needs you most'."

She smiles as she tells the story. "I was touched when I saw it," she explains.

So now she finds herself standing in front of a class of 12-year-olds in the Yunnan countryside, teaching them Chinese.

"On the one hand I am here to do something for the local people," she insists. "On the other hand, I'm learning a lot from them too."

Coming back home

For years, migrants have moved from the west of China to the richer parts of the country in the east - the coastal provinces - to work in factories.

Ms Li is not the only person here who's lived the life of a migrant.

One of her pupils, Xia Yun, was living with her mother, a migrant worker on the other side of the country, until last year.

Now she lives in a little wooden house, on the side of a hill, with a small stone courtyard where the pigs, chickens and dogs are housed.

The school's head teacher, Lee Xiang Zhong
We have some children who board with us... They don't have enough clothing. They don't have enough money. Their life is very hard.
Lee Xiang Zhong, head teacher

Xia came back last year from Zhejiang province when her grandmother, who had been helping to look after her there, returned to Yunnan.

Like most 12-year-olds, Xia is pretty shy, but it's clear from our conversation that she misses her parents a lot.

"My mother will come home next month to visit," she explains, "but I won't see my father until the Spring Festival [in February next year]."

She says life was better in Zhejiang because her parents were around.

The move has been quite disruptive for her studies too.

"Here I live closer to the school, but the lessons are simpler here - the schoolwork was harder in Zhejiang."

We eat lunch at a tiny restaurant down the road from Xia's house, where they fry up locally grown vegetables in a huge wok fixed over a fire.

The school's head teacher, Lee Xiang Zhong, joins us for the meal. He is very happy with Li Ya Fang's performance, especially the fact she has decided to stay for a second year.

Xia Yun
Xia Yun misses her parents and her life in Zhejiang

"She's devoted to the job," he explains as he picks at the dishes on the table with his chopsticks. "We are proud of her."

Mr Lee says the children in his school who are the offspring of migrant workers often find life harder than the others who live with their parents.

"We have some children who board with us because of this," he says. "They don't have enough clothing. They don't have enough money. Their life is very hard."

Important experience

Back at school the children are sweeping up - getting the classroom ready for the afternoon lessons.

Pausing for a moment after handing out tasks for her pupils to complete, Ms Li insists that although life here can be tough, away from the comforts of her old life in the city, the experience has been overwhelmingly positive.

"I wanted to know what life was like in western China, in a rural area. I wouldn't have had this opportunity if I had gone to work straight after graduation. It's been very important for me."

For three decades, migrant workers have left this part of China in large numbers to look for work elsewhere.

The money they've sent back has made a huge difference to people's lives here, but still western China struggles to keep up with the more affluent coastal provinces.

Migrant teacher Ms Li and others like her are bringing valuable skills back west to try to help boost development in the country's interior.

Back in her classroom she watches her children perform a patriotic song.

Her only worry, she says, is that she won't be able to help them enough to make good progress.

Print Sponsor

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific