When I went to visit the elderly aunts and uncles of an ARDY volunteer last week I was given a chance to witness firsthand the considerable impact that the last twenty years of uneven economic development in China has already had upon social and family structures in Yilong County. My friend’s second aunt and uncle, in their mid-seventies, live alone on their small farms with their high-school aged grandchildren. Their mother, my friend’s cousin, works in a factory in Chengdu, returning only once a year to spend Chinese New Year with her children and the rest of her family.
This demographic pattern is common throughout Yilong County. With opportunities for economic advancement at home scare, more and more residents of Yilong look either to Chengdu or to the booming metropolises of China’s coastal provinces. Today all but a very small number of young people leave Yilong to seek economic opportunity elsewhere. Those who were able to complete high school may get a service industry job in the city or, if their grades and the exam scores were good enough, get to attend college. Those without the prerequisite schooling will seek migrant labor jobs, often in a factory or in construction, in a larger city.
While the life of a mingong 民工, or Chinese migrant laborer, is exceedingly difficult, subjecting the worker to long, harsh journeys, poor conditions, and difficult work, it is nonetheless for many a better economic alternative than subsistence agriculture. I spoke to a man recently who grew up in Yilong County but now runs a construction firm in Shanxi Province that mostly employs mingong from Sichuan. He told me that manual labor on a road construction project earns 3000 RMB/month, which is enough to live frugally and still send money back home.
This sudden level of mobility is already challenging traditional family structures in Yilong. Many couples spend long periods of time apart because one or both of the parents travels abroad for work, returning only once a year to celebrate Chinese New Year with their families. Children are left behind in the village, often to be raised primarily by their grandparents. However, the advanced age and often precarious economic condition of the grandparents may prevent them from raising the children effectively, or for providing them with the tuition to start school on time. In a few more extreme cases, secretary general Gao Xiangjun explained in a meeting last week, the husband has been killed while working at a dangerous manual labor job outside the county, leaving the mother either to raise the children on her own or to abandon them.
This threat to the stability of nuclear family relationships is one of the effects of China’s rapid economic development which ARDY seeks to ameliorate. Microloans to start small enterprises or expand agricultural activities provide a profitable economic alternative to migrant labor. A large percentage of ARDY’s borrowers worked as migrant laborers for several years before receiving a loan, and as a result of the economic success they achieved with the help of a microloan are now able to stay at home with their families throughout the year.