The figures were announced one day after Beijing warned of "possibly the toughest year" since the turn of the century, calling for development of agriculture and rural areas to offset the economic fallout. Though many Chinese cities have seen double-digit growth in recent years, the countryside has lagged far behind, forcing peasants to seek urban factory jobs churning out goods that are sold around the world.
But a recent government survey showed that slightly more than 15 percent of China's estimated 130 million migrant workers have returned to their hometowns and are now unemployed, said Chen Xiwen, director of the Central Rural Work Leading Group, a central government advisory body. Another 5 or 6 million new migrants enter the work force each year, he added.
"So, if we put those figures together, we have roughly 25 to 26 million rural migrant workers who are now coming under pressures for employment," he said. "So from that perspective, ensuring job creation and maintenance is ensuring the stability of the countryside."
In comparison, the U.S. unemployment rate climbed to a 16-year high of 7.2 percent in December, meaning about 11.1 million Americans are without jobs, or less than half the number of unemployed migrants in China.
Chen's 26 million figure is separate from China's official jobless tally, which only counts registered urban workers, and was estimated last November to total 8.3 million. The official government rate is widely believed to under-represent the true number of unemployed because it leaves out large swaths of the private or informal economy.
Neither count includes the millions of Chinese college graduates trying to enter the work force.
Chinese authorities have stressed that their priority in 2009 will be ensuring development in the countryside, where many have come to rely on remittances from migrants working in factories and on urban construction sites, amid fears of social unrest.
Many factory workers have already taken to the streets in recent weeks, demanding pay and protesting layoffs.
Chen outlined a raft of existing policies geared toward helping migrants, including encouraging companies to retain workers, investing in public projects to absorb rural workers and helping returning migrants set up businesses in their hometowns.
"Maintaining the stability of the countryside is a focal point of upholding overall social stability," Chen said.
China's economic growth - once red-hot - plunged to 6.8 percent in the three months through December, compared with a year earlier. Analysts have cut forecasts of 2009 economic growth to as low as 5 percent.
Premier Wen Jiabao said in comments published Monday that Beijing was considering new steps to boost economic growth. The Financial Times report did not give details of the potential plan, which would follow a 4 trillion yuan ($586 billion) package unveiled in November with heavy spending on public works projects.
Meanwhile, China's communist rulers have told the military to strictly obey the Communist Party, reflecting insecurity among authorities as a result of the global downturn. Similar calls have been made in the past, underscoring the important role China's massive military plays in supporting one-party rule and maintaining social stability.