Ren Wenhua with the catch from his pond. Ren is a former migrant worker who has returned to his home town in Xichong County, Sichuan Province (COURTESY OF REN WENHUA)
Morning mist shrouded the hills around the stretch of water where a small boat lay moored close to something enclosed by a net. On closer inspection, it turned out to be a square-shaped fish hatchery belonging to the Sanxin Ecological Aquaculture Cooperative in Xichong, a county in southwest China's Sichuan Province.
In this idyllic scene waded in workers looking to harvest the fish in the knee-high water. Agitated fish began jumping out of the water, creating loud splashes that broke the quiet.
"The farm produces more than 5,000 kg of fish per year," said Ren Wenhua, head of the cooperative. Most of the fish are herrings, silver carps, grass carps and bighead carps, the four most cultivated fish species in China. There are also a few others such as loaches and white mullets. The cooperative plans to expand production, Ren said.
One way of doing that is by increasing its workforce. So the cooperative has started rolling out the red carpet for migrant workers returning to their hometown to start small businesses of their own or find jobs locally.
Xichong has a welcome message for the returnees on its official website. It refers to the cooperative, saying it has business opportunities for more than 100 returning migrant workers. To reassure them further, the website also tells them that the transportation, electricity and communication infrastructure has been well developed to ensure the production, shipment and sale of their catch.
"We welcome returning migrant workers to join the cooperative, either as shareholders or workers," Ren said.
The cooperative is located in Shufangwan, a village about 20 km from Xichong's county seat. It lies close to a reservoir and has abundant water resources. Moreover, there is no factory or mine in the vicinity and the water is clean, making it an ideal site for a fish farm.
Showing the way
Ren himself is a migrant worker who has returned to his hometown. In 1982, Ren, then a teenager fresh out of middle school, left home drawn by the opportunities in cities, thanks to China's reform and opening-up policies.
He went to Chongqing Municipality, and worked in the transportation industry there for 16 years. During this time, he also operated a cargo shipping company. Then he discovered that aquaculture was a lucrative business and decided to go back to his hometown to run a fish farm near the reservoir.
But first, to learn fish farming skills, Ren enrolled in the aquaculture program of Southwest University in Chongqing, studying there for two years. Then in 1998, he went back home and started his fish farm. It also meant a reunion with his wife and child, who had been living without him all these years, meeting him only occasionally when he came home during holidays.
The Sanxin Ecological Aquaculture Cooperative was established in 2013 with Ren as its head. It runs on 6.7 hectares leased from the village, on an investment of more than 5 million yuan ($714,000).
Today, it has become the largest aquatic breeding base in northeast Sichuan, also serving as a teaching and experiment base for Southwest University. The university provides technical guidance while Ren manages the farm with the help of his other partners. He attaches great importance to environment protection and a wastewater treatment plant has been built.
Returning migrant workers attend a job fair in Shiyan, Hubei Province, on February 16, 2016 (XINHUA)
Developing sales channels
Besides the fish farm, Ren also owns a chicken farm, which produces 3,000 to 4,000 chickens every year. His products are sold to Chongqing via the traditional sales channels Ren has developed. They are also sold on e-commerce platforms built by the Xichong County Government.
The county has a population of about 680,000. In 2015, its rural residents' average per-capita annual disposable income fell below the national average. Many farmers moved away from home to work as migrant workers in cities. In 2015, almost 186,000 people—27 percent of the local population—worked outside their hometowns, according to the county's statistics.
Xichong has started implementing the Central Government's policies for people returning to the countryside, such as waiving or reducing the income tax for corporates engaged in agriculture, forestry, animal husbandry and fishery.
Yan Jie, head of the county's Human Resources and Social Security Department, told local media that in the first quarter of 2016, more than 200 people returned and started agricultural and aquacultural businesses, generating 2,000-plus jobs.
Ren's invitation to returning migrant workers echoes the government's policy encouraging people to start businesses in the countryside.
At a press conference on December 1,2016, Vice Agricultural Minister Chen Xiaohua said the State Council, China's cabinet, had reiterated that further measures would be taken to create favorable conditions for migrant workers and others to run new businesses in rural areas.
The State Council has been issuing several documents to ensure this. After June 2015, another one was released on November 29, 2016, with detailed measures to support more groups of people. Chen said while in the past, support was given mainly to rural migrant workers, college students and demobilized servicemen, now science and technology personnel in cities are also being supported to open innovative businesses in the countryside.
The November document specifies the areas where the government is encouraging more people to get involved: large-scale planting, processing agricultural products, leisure agriculture—a new method of farming that encourages tourists to get involved, rural tourism and various service industries. It also promotes the integrated development of the primary, secondary and tertiary industries.
The support measures include lowering the threshold for starting businesses, providing fiscal support and financial services, and improving infrastructure.
As China urbanizes rapidly, rural residents are flowing into cities in large numbers. In 2015, the migrant population was 247 million, which meant one out of every six people in the country left their homes to work in cities, said a report released by the National Health and Family Planning Commission in October 2016.
But in recent times, 4.5 million migrant workers have returned home to start their own businesses. In addition, 1.3 million-plus city dwellers, including science and technology personnel and college students, have gone to the countryside to take part in businesses and innovative activities, Chen said.
In 2015 alone, 2.42 million returnees started 260,700 new businesses in their hometown, according to statistics released before a forum on returning migrant workers' entrepreneurship, innovation and development in Zunyi, Guizhou Province, in September 2016.
People returning to the countryside bring with them modern technology, lifestyle and management ideas, improving agricultural efficiency and the competitiveness of agricultural products, Chen said. They can also foster new rural business models since they tend to integrate agricultural production with product processing and selling, and more than half of them sell their products through the Internet.
Most importantly, they offer a solution to rural problems like the phenomenon of "left-behind children," youngsters who grow up without one or both parents because jobs take the latter to cities. Furthermore, their return addresses problems regarding the elderly, who are also left behind in this mass migration. When the "natives" decide to come back for good, this social vacuum can be addressed and they can reassume responsibility for their aging parents and children.
Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar
Comments to firstname.lastname@example.org