China's Peasants Abandon Cities as 20 Million Jobs Disappear

To see the Chinese countryside in the western Sichuan Province in spring is a chance to behold some truly spectacular scenery. The yellow flowers in the fields blaze across the landscape and farmers turn the earth by hand.

But the beauty belies the hard life of China's peasants.

Some 800 million people live much the way they have for centuries, with few of the amenities of modern life. Just 10 months ago, Sichuan Province was hit by a massive 8.0 magnitude earthquake that left 70,000 people dead, 18,000 missing and millions homeless.

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Knowing that the eyes of the world were watching and that its response would be judged by its own people, the Chinese government pledged a $150 billion reconstruction effort.

Today rebuilding is underway and those displaced by the earthquake reside in so-called "blue-roof villages" — temporary modular housing with blue metal roofs.

Tens of thousands call these shelters home.

But resident Zeng Li is quite content with his situation.

"We have water, electricity, even the Internet. It's actually better than the single-room apartment where I lived before," he said.

Conditions inside are quite stark, with bare concrete floors — but Zeng is able to watch the NBA on his computer.

Life in China's rural areas has never been easy. The average person in Sichuan Province earns only about $400 a year, so with the promise of well-paying factory jobs people have left by the hundreds of thousands and headed for China's booming cities. In the best of times factory workers could make five times what they could toiling in the fields of their small villages.

But for many, these are the worst of times. As a result of the global financial crisis, demand for Chinese-made goods has declined and within the last year an estimated 70,000 factories and businesses have closed, leaving 20 million "migrant workers" without jobs.

"Times are tough," said Li Yuan Zhen, who used to work at a garment factory in Guangdong Province earning about $150 a month.

"Since the company went bankrupt there is no work," she said. Hundreds of thousands of workers from Sichuan are in a similar position and have been forced to return to their rural homes with no prospect of work anytime soon.

Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong believed that if the party lost the support of the peasants it would lose control of China. Mindful of that, the government had set a goal of 8 percent growth this year, fearing less would cause such high unemployment it would result in mass civil unrest.

That hasn't happened yet, but after two decades of economic growth, the global downturn is seen as the most serious test for the ruling Communist party in a generation.