EFEBy Javier Castro Bugarin Beijing

Tang gulps down the last mouthfuls of rice from his bowl before returning to work at a construction site in Beijing, but not without expressing a certain nostalgia for Sichuan, his homeland, located about 2,000 km (1,243 miles) from the Chinese capital.

"I don't like Beijing. It's getting increasingly harder (than before) to work here, and the cost of living is very high," Tang told EFE. After living for more than 10 years in Beijing, he doesn’t rule out going back to Guangyuan, the city he hails from in Sichuan.

Tang’s is not an isolated case in China, where unstoppable growth of big cities and development in rural areas are pushing an increasing number of migrant workers (called 'dongmingong' in Chinese) – the craftsmen of the "Made in China" model – to the interiors of the country.

This collective, made up of about 288 million people - one-fifth of China's population and a third of the total workforce - was once the engine of the "Chinese economic miracle". But the new economic paradigm seems to move them further and further away from megacities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

This was evident in a recent survey by the National Bureau of Statistics, which noted that migrant population growth in 2018 has been the lowest in the last five years, with an inter-annual increase of just 0.6 percent compared to the most common figures of 1.5 to 2 percent.

The numbers underline a major shift with respect to migratory dynamics: while the volume of migrant workers fell last year to 3.9 percent in the Pearl River Delta -China's former manufacturing center- it rose 4.2 percent in the case of inland and western provinces of the country.

According to Wen Xiaoyi, a professor at China University of Labor Relations, the country "is going through a process of industrial transformation”, a reality that is leading migrant workers to seek out luck in places where job opportunities did not exist before.

"Coastal areas that had a high density of labor have become highly skilled with higher technological demands from workers, while inland areas have inherited the industries that transferred from the east, such as, textiles," Wen told EFE.

In fact, the number of migrant workers in major Chinese cities fell by 1.5 percent in 2018 -a total of 2.04 million people- the largest decline in history, falling by 1.2 percent in the megalopolises of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

One of the major reasons is the "hukou" or residence registration system which is becoming more stringent in big cities and which, however, is gradually disappearing in cities that have a population of one to three million inhabitants, in order to attract more migration.

Similarly, the increase in the standard of living of first and second-tier cities, which have experienced an inter-annual rise of up to 35 percent in the prices of housing since 2015, has resulted in migrants no longer finding these cities viable.

However, this is not the case in the central and western provinces, stars of the Chinese government's efforts to bridge the urban-rural gap, said Leslie Young, professor of economics at the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business.

“China has based its prosperity on an extensive program of infrastructure, highways and high-speed trains. This is bringing people back on a large scale to both provincial capitals of the interior and other smaller cities," he said.

A factor that, Young said, would also lead to increased migration between the interior areas themselves, where "cities are increasingly effective in creating new opportunities”.

This argument is supported by data from the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, which in a study published earlier this year, estimated that 7.8 million people had returned to their hometowns to be entrepreneurs of which 70 percent were migrant workers.

A population transfer promoted by the authorities themselves, such as the government of the southern province of Guangxi, which has recently launched a fund of 234 million yuan ($34 million) in aid for the entrepreneurship of the 'dongmingong'.

In any case, the slowdown in Chinese economy – whose growth rate of 6.6 percent in 2018 was the lowest since 1990 – could accelerate this trend even further in the coming years, warned Wen.

"The reduction in migration depends on the degree of economic growth. If China's economy develops well in the future, the reductionist trend will reverse. But if it does not, migrant workers will return to interior areas. It's a very obvious trend," Wen said.