Migrant workers saving big in China

Beijing, January 7:

Zhang Xiaochun’s son is 14 years old, but she has not seen him since she left her village in southwest China to work in the capital eight years ago. She thinks it’s too expensive to go home.

“I want to save as much as I can,” said the 36-year-old woman, speaking with the distinct accent of largely rural Sichuan province. “Money is what drove us here.” Zhang sweeps the corridors of a 33-story Beijing office building, and her husband, who also left home when their son was six, works at a construction site. They only spend money on the most basic necessities, and together they manage to put as much as 9,000 yuan ($1,150) in the bank every year. Zhang’s mother cares for their teenage son back home.

The incomes of Chinese farming communities — the primary source of the country’s migrant workforce — have risen significantly in recent years. The agriculture ministry put the increase at an inflation-adjusted six per cent in 2006, and work in the cities is a major contributing factor. But the stories told by Zhang and other migrant workers suggest that the extra money may not be translating into more consumption, which the Chinese government sees as crucial for growth in the world’s fourth-largest economy. “Growth in consumption has been declining even as income has kept rising,” said Huo De-ming, an economics professor at Peking University.

Chinese households consumed just 38.2 per cent of their income in 2005, down from 48.8 per cent in 1991 and reaching a historic low, according to central bank figures. In the countryside, all age groups — even the young and adventurous with no obvious obligations — are keen to save, save, save.

Zheng Songling was 18 when he left Sichuan’s Ziy-ang county three years ago to work as a carpenter in the capital hundreds of mi-les away. Eager to explore city life, he spent money on a new cellphone and an MP3 player, but even he has started putting some of his wages aside to one day go back to school. “I wish to get at least a college diploma so that I can find a proper job in the future,” the teen said. “I dropped out of school in the first year of senior high school. I was too young at the time.”

Zheng does what hundreds of millions of other Chinese do these days — save for education and other expenses that are no longer covered by the state. “In the absence of a stro-nger social safety net, Chinese households save at hi-gh rates to protect themsel-ves against risks such as unexpected medical expenses and poverty.”