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Letter From Hunan, China: The Chinese Government Has Big Plans for Its Migrant Worker Population

As the urban economy slows, the government is encouraging rural-to-urban migrants to open businesses in the countryside.

The steep wooded hills across the valley from Shen Yongbiao’s childhood home are barely visible through a thick white mist. Clusters of waist-high tea bushes dot the landscape on all sides: Residents of this region in China’s Hunan province have been growing tea here for 2,000 years. As we set out to the fields carved along a ridge near his property, Shen, a bookish man of about 40 with close-cropped hair and thin-rimmed glasses, picks up a long, tapered tree branch and brandishes it about. “In case of poisonous snakes,” he tells me.

Stick-less, I ask him how to spot poisonous snakes on the ground.

“Oh, they are in the trees too,” he adds.

We walk on a narrow dirt path through the trees. Shen launches into a thorough explanation of the different flora surrounding us, noting the different species of bamboo growing along the path. I am trying to pay attention while scanning up and down. We pause suddenly; Shen calmly points upward. I assume a defense position. A brightly colored striped fruit, not much bigger than a peppercorn, hangs above our heads. He and his friends loved to eat these when they were kids, he says. We stroll along the edge of a smooth outcropping that slopes down to the valley: Rather than attempt to carry lumber along the snaking paths out of the steep forest, local residents simply slide tree trunks down to the bottom.

Until recently, it had been nearly 20 years since Shen lived on these verdant slopes. Like nearly all of his peers, he left his impoverished village at a young age to find work in the city. He worked his way up from regional salesperson to vice director of the sales department at a company in Nanjing, a thousand kilometers away from his home in Hunan. He earned a base salary of around $44,000 per year — more than eight times the average income for migrant workers — and obtained urban hukou, or household registration, which allowed him and his children to access city services and schools. But when the government unveiled policies to encourage rural-to-urban migrants to open businesses in the countryside, Shen decided it was time to head back. He started a tea-processing company in the village called Seven Eyes Pond — named after a series of deep pools tucked in the ravine below his home.

China’s rapid economic development has been built on the backs of rural-to-urban migrants, and urbanization continues: The latest five-year plan calls for 60 percent of the population to live in urban areas by 2020, up from 56 percent. There are still far more job opportunities and social services in cities.

Yet as the urban economy slows, officials also want to steer people away from overcrowded megacities and reverse the brain drain in the countryside. The central government codified this “counter-urbanization” in June of 2015 with a policy to encourage migrant entrepreneurs to start businesses in rural areas, targeting people like Shen. Local governments have since followed suit.

“I’ve been away all of these years, but I have always been thinking about my hometown, where my parents live,” Shen says. “I’m worried about them. So when I saw the policy to encourage migrant workers to return to their homes, I came back.”

When Shen launched his business, the township government arranged a 15-day tea processing and manufacturing course for him. He went to Changsha, the provincial capital, as part of training for local leaders to help eliminate poverty. Local officials have offered to arrange financial support and favorable loans, supported by poverty-alleviation funds. The county government even has a department dedicated to promoting the local tea business, and artists have written a series of songs specifically about the county’s tea. They are, I admit, surprisingly catchy.

Shen invites me to observe the daily routine at his temporary processing facility, which is nestled among village houses along the road that snakes past his home. Shen’s two employees — his father and a neighbor from the village — wear royal-blue plastic uniforms and hats emblazoned with the Seven Eyes Pond logo. They pick out impure leaves by hand before rolling and pressing the rest in a machine that dances like a robotic spider. After the leaves are heated, pressed, rolled, and fermented, they will be dried in the traditional manner, over a wood fire, leaving a light, smoky flavor. Shen hands me a promotional brochure detailing the health benefits of his tea, which include clearer skin for women and stress relief for men. “I looked up the health benefits on Baidu encyclopedia,” he confides to me, referring to China’s version of Wikipedia.

Two years ago, Shen’s father had a stroke. Shen and his brother both lived on the coast, and nobody was home to care for their parents, who have only known rural life and do not want to leave. Shen motions toward the steep, tree-covered slopes. “When people say that rural farmers don’t have skills, look at these mountains,” he says. “They managed to make a living out here. There’s no way they can move to the cities and take up other jobs. This is their skill.”

Migrants hope that counter-urbanization can help offset limited social security for children and the elderly. The rural safety net is expanding, but very slowly: Most rural seniors are now guaranteed monthly support of at least 70 yuan (just over $10) — barely enough for a few meals, let alone long-term economic security. Being able to work and care for family together in the countryside would, as the Chinese idiom says, yi shi er niao — kill two birds with one stone. Elsewhere in China, the movement has already started: 5.7 million people have moved from cities to the countryside to start businesses in the last few years, according to the agriculture ministry.

Shen is the first person from his village to have left and then returned to start a business, but he thinks there are more waiting in the wings. “They are watching my situation,” he says. If his tea business takes off, the rest of his generation may decide the trip home is worth it.

At the edge of the tea field, where the clearing turns again into forest, Shen kneels down to show us a broken stone stele that dates back to the imperial era. From what is left of the inscription, he knows the stone lists fines, but it is unclear for what violations, or exactly for when. It is, more than anything, a general marker of time. “My grandfather says it was here when he was a kid,” Shen says. It was there when Shen grew up — and now it will be there for his children too.