China’s Migrant Workers in the Wake of the Economic Crisis: Unemployed, Undeterred

On China Beat, Robert D. O’Brien looks at the impact of the economic crisis on China’s migrant workers and whether the government really should be worrying about large-scale unrest by the unemployed:

In the wake of the recent mass layoffs, there has been rampant speculation over the possible ramifications of such widespread unemployment for political stability. A multitude of scholars and journalists have written of a migrant class on the edge of revolt – jobless, landless, and growing increasingly desperate.[1] Relatively small, largely localized “mass incidents” (quntixing shijian) – 300 aggrieved migrant workers rioted in Guangdong, 1,000 commenced a march on Beijing from Hebei, and one man blew himself up in a northwest China government office – are widely cited as indicators of future unrest, possibly on a grander scale.[2] A careful analysis of the situation, however, leads one to question the soundness of any claims predicting an impending political crisis. Indeed, an examination of several critical factors, namely the ability of laid-off migrants to meet their basic needs, their reactions to getting laid off, their capacity to organize on a large-scale, and the government’s response to the crisis, all show that it is highly unlikely that Chinese political stability will be seriously threatened by the country’s migrant worker class.

[…] As a Fulbright Scholar conducting researching in China this past year, I have interviewed numerous unemployed migrants living in areas such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangdong, Suzhou, Nanchang, and rural Henan. Such interviews are striking in that they feature relatively few expressions of anger and desperation. On the contrary, the sentiments most frequently shared by the migrant workers are that a) the government is working to aid China’s migrants and fix the economy, and b) that the downturn will not last long. Though this collection of reactions does not represent empirical evidence demonstrating that no migrant workers are enraged by their plight, it does speak to both the widespread nature of these benign sentiments and the importance of understanding the nature of job loss in the migrant worker’s world.

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