Under a nearby tree, a farmer from Hunan province lay on his back, legs crossed, reading a paperback love story. It was his first visit too, and he was not sure how to look for a job. A group of 30 from Sichuan province was more fortunate; it was their third year back in Guangdong province and they were returning to jobs building a sea-wall in a coastal town.
The predominant colour is still blue, but the thousands of traditionally dressed rural workers waiting outside the station have put behind them the Maoist dictum that peasants should be tied to their land. The station forecourt and the surrounding streets have become an open-air jobs bazaar. Red posters stuck on trees and concrete posts advertise work in textile factories and on building sites.
The seasonal wave of China's 'floating population' has been bigger than ever this year. In the weeks since Chinese New Year at the end of January, the traditional time for contracts to be renewed, up to 90 million people have been on the move, streaming from rural provinces such as Sichuan, Anhui, Henan, Jiangxi and Hubei to the booming coastal cities. Some returned to existing jobs after the annual holiday, or returned to college, but up to half may have set off with no firm destination after hearing tales of lucrative urban opportunities, or because of lack of work at home.
By early February, more than 1 million had passed through Canton station, heading for the strong economies of the Pearl River delta cities. In Peking, as well as building work, the burgeoning market for nannies and maids is satisfied by migrant rural girls.
In Shanghai, Wu Chuan-Rui, chief economist at the municipal government's Finance and Trade Office, said the floating population had swollen the 13 million population by another 2.5 million, many attracted this year by reports of jobs in Shanghai's huge Pudong development zone. Up to 500,000 migrants floated in and out of the station on some days last month.
'It has a good side, but also creates some bad effects. There is a lot of construction and floating labour can help provide some workers for this. The population circling around also helps to spread the wealth a bit. But there are some problems. They are floating blindly. They don't know what the big cities need. They just come here blindly,' said Mr Wu. Many do not find jobs and wander the city carrying their tools.
In central Wuhan, the hub of China, Lou Long Ji, director of the planning commission, said the city's floating population at any one time was about 800,000, of whom more than half were passing through the city by train or on the Yangtze ferries. Two weeks ago, 120,000 left the main railway station in one day. Most were from Sichuan province and rural Hubei province.
For the authorities, the increasing mobility of the population is eroding the former strict social controls that used to regiment people's lives. Some permanent vagrants now escape the system altogether, something which could, for instance, have a big impact on birth control programmes.
The seasonal tidal wave of migrant labourers was first noticeable in 1987. It fell back around 1990 because of China's austerity programme which reduced casual work, and in the past two years has grown strongly. Peasants used to be tied down by the strict household registration system which specified their place of residence and made it difficult to obtain food and lodgings in the cities. These days farmland can be contracted out, and train tickets bought without a permit. The economic reforms mean that food and lodging can be bought without government coupons or permission.
In a 1991 study, Alan Liu, at the University of California at Santa Barbara, said: 'Compared with the movement for intellectual freedom among the educated, the rise in the physical mobility of rural Chinese has affected more people and its impact on society is just as significant.' Xu Zhong Ling at Hong Kong University said: 'Even five years ago, many rural people in inland provinces did not know what was happening in the city.'
While new freedoms provide the opportunities, many are now leaving rural life because they have to. Surplus labour on farms and in rural state enterprises is huge; wages are low and a big wealth gap is opening up between countryside and city. At a Wuhan railway station, a dozen teenaged blacksmiths were travelling from Anhui to Hebei. 'Anhui is poor, there is no work,' said one.
A group waiting in Canton from Hubei stood out in their suits, ties and sunglasses. They had jobs at a local joint-venture clothing factory where they would earn 600 yuan a month ( pounds 50), three times their home wage. It is not always so good. Many migrants are poorly paid, doing unwanted jobs, and are emerging as an urban underclass, living in poor accommodation - though it can still be better than home. The most immediate impact of the New Year crush is to stretch the overburdened public transport system close to breaking point.
This year more than 5,000 goods trains had to be stopped to make way for passenger transport. Among the horror stories was that of train Number 253 from Wuhan to Canton, which was so crowded, according to China Daily, that six people spent the whole journey together in one of the lavatories. A recent passenger to Peking was quoted as saying: 'We did not dare drink much, because it was like taking a 'Long March' going to the washroom.'
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