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With China's Economy Battered By Pandemic, Millions Return To The Land For Work


Like many countries, China is dealing with a COVID-related economic crisis. It even scrapped its annual growth targets for the first time ever and instead pledged to focus on reducing the number of unemployed. Officially, the country's unemployment rate is only 6%. As NPR's Emily Feng reports, this is because many of its unemployed are hidden from sight.


EMILY FENG, BYLINE: It's wheat harvest season in China's Henan province, and plumes of dust rise over golden fields of wheat as threshers cut down the ripe stalks.


FENG: Villagers then shovel grain kernels over every available surface to sun-dry. And this year, there are more people than usual to help with the harvest in this rural fringe outside the Henan County of Zhumadian. Lockdown measures prevented nearly 300 million migrant workers from leaving rural areas for months. The ensuing recession meant even after lockdowns were lifted, many have been unable to find work, so they've had to stay in China's vast rural areas and live off what produce they can sell. This man, Zhang Ping, jokes as he shovels wheat.

ZHANG PING: (Through interpreter) Why else would you see so many young men around in the village at this time of the year?

FENG: Zhumadian, the county they live in, is famous for how many migrant workers go out each year to labor in big cities, leaving its surrounding villages empty year-round. But this year, Zhang's childhood friend Ye Xinduo never even left the village. He's made do here with part-time local jobs because work is scarce in the cities.

YE XINDUO: (Through interpreter) They're cutting wages 30%. All the smaller factories have closed.

FENG: China's official unemployment rate in April was just 6%. Analysts estimate the real unemployment rate is likely 20% - nearly 80 million people now out of a job. Tianlei Huang, a research analyst at think tank Peterson Institute for International Economics, thinks the discrepancy comes from the way China counts its unemployed.

TIANLEI HUANG: The design of the survey is to survey those who are in the urban area. It doesn't really take into account those people who travel frequently between the country and urban areas, like migrant workers.

FENG: China's statistics show 50 million fewer rural residents returned to cities this February than during the same time last year, likely because they had no work. Worse - only about 10% of China's unemployed normally receive unemployment benefits because they lack formal work contracts. And so China's vast rural tracts are now serving as an unemployment sponge, soaking up floating migrant workers by giving them temporary agricultural work on small family plots.


FENG: Just outside Zhumadian is Big Zhao Village, so named because everyone there is related and has the same surname, Zhao. While lockdowns were lifted throughout March, hundreds of workers left on government subsidized buses for Dongguan and Guangzhou, China's manufacturing hubs. Then the recession hit.

ZHAO: (Through interpreter) My daughter just returned to the village. The electronics factory she worked in closed.

FENG: This Mr. Zhao didn't give his full name because he was uncomfortable talking publicly about his family's unemployment. His extended clan explains they are relying on the wheat harvest for spending money this year. But it won't be much. Yields this year has been about four-fifths what they were last year.

YAN XIYUN: (Through interpreter) The weather's so dry. There's been no rain. Everything we plant this year just dies.

FENG: Yan Xiyun is from a village near the Zhaos. She's a labor intermediary, so for a fee, she finds factory manufacturing jobs for the Zhaos. This year, no luck.

YAN: (Through interpreter) They can't possibly pay all their workers. A factory I've worked with for years normally takes 2,000 of our villagers. Now it only takes a few.

FENG: Ms. Yan has seen her own income drop because she relies on a finder's fee from placing workers in factories.

YAN: (Through interpreter) Everyone is spending less because you can only rely on the money you get from the harvest this year.

FENG: This year, Ms. Yan says, to make ends meet, she will be working in the fields herself.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Zhumadian, Henan province. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.