MOVING PEASANTS AND THE URBANIZATION OF THE CHINESE COUNTRYSIDE

URBANIZATION OF THE CHINESE COUNTRYSIDE

Ian Johnson wrote in the New York Times, “Across China, bulldozers are leveling villages that date to long-ago dynasties. Towers now sprout skyward from dusty plains and verdant hillsides. New urban schools and hospitals offer modern services, but often at the expense of the torn-down temples and open-air theaters of the countryside. [Source: Ian Johnson, New York Times, June 15, 2013 \~]

“The building frenzy is on display in places like Liaocheng, which grew up as an entrepôt for local wheat farmers in the North China Plain. It is now ringed by scores of 20-story towers housing now-landless farmers who have been thrust into city life. Many are giddy at their new lives — they received the apartments free, plus tens of thousands of dollars for their land — but others are uncertain about what they will do when the money runs out. \~\

“Almost every province has large-scale programs to move farmers into housing towers, with the farmers’ plots then given to corporations or municipalities to manage. Efforts have been made to improve the attractiveness of urban life, but the farmers caught up in the programs typically have no choice but to leave their land. The broad trend began decades ago. In the early 1980s, about 80 percent of Chinese lived in the countryside versus 47 percent today, plus an additional 17 percent that works in cities but is classified as rural. The idea is to speed up this process and achieve an urbanized China much faster than would occur organically. \~\

Websites and Sources: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; People’s Daily article peopledaily.com ; Books: “Will the Boat Sink the Water: The Life of China’s Peasants” by Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao (Public Affairs, 2006); “Going to the Countryside: The Rural in the Modern Chinese Cultural Imagination, 1915-1965" by Yu Zhang (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2020), an academic book; "Rural Life in Modern China" by C.F. Mobo ; “China in One Village: The Story of One Town and the Changing World” by Liang Hong; translated by Emily Goedde (London: Verso, 2021); "Spectacle and Sacrifice: The Ritual Foundations of Village Life in North China" by David Johnson (Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2010)

Two Million to Be Relocated in Guizhou

In November 2012, the Chinese government announced that two million people would be moved from their isolated homes in the Wuling mountains, Guizhou province as part of one of the single largest relocations in recent Chinese history. Tom Phillips wrote in The Telegraph: “It is billed as the "final offensive" against extreme poverty in China's poorest province. Between 2012 and 2020, two million people are to be moved...It is a gargantuan task and one that will cost billions. But provincial authorities claim resettlement is the only way to eliminate the grinding rural poverty that continues to blight China's countryside. "Even if we build roads to reach them, provide drinking water to them and work to alleviate poverty there for another 50 years, the problem might not be addressed," Guizhou's party secretary, Zhao Kezhi, said earlier this year. "[The mountains] … barely provide the conditions for sustaining life."[Source: Tom Phillips, The Telegraph, November 12, 2012]

“Declared a key anti-poverty "battlefield" by authorities, the Wuling region's isolated mountain villages seem a world away from the spectacular skylines of Shanghai or Beijing. Sitting under the tarpaulin-roof of his improvised schoolhouse, Long Qingfu, the 37-year-old chief and stopgap teacher of Longtan village, said relocation could not happen soon enough. "Longtan needs poverty relief. We have very bad roads, you see. We have no tap water." Mr Long pointed to the wooden wall behind him, onto which lessons were chalked in yellow and pink scrawl. "We have no blackboard," he explained.

“Home to around 570 members of the Miao ethnic group, Longtan has a long and proud history. But despite their emotional ties to the land, many locals are ready to abandon their ancestral homes. "We want to move," said Long Jinhua, 62, who was caring for her two-year-old granddaughter in the wooden house her family has called home for two centuries. Mrs Long said rural conditions had improved during the Hu-Wen era; roads had connected Longtan to the outside world for the first time, the price of grain had risen and her family had purchased a television set. But life was still a struggle. "I want to go to the city to experience a different life," she confessed, suggesting it might also help her two sons find wives.

Guizhou’s Relocation Plan

In February 2012, China Daily reported: “The government of Southwest China's Guizhou province is planning to spend 18 billion yuan ($2.85 billion)...in a bid to end chronic poverty there. Ethnic minorities account for about 39 percent of the province's population, and the province is eight years behind the national average development level, according to official statistics. Per capita GDP of the landlocked and ecologically fragile province was 13,000 yuan in 2010, equivalent to 40 percent of the national average or just 17 percent of that of economically prosperous Shanghai, according to official figures.[Source: China Daily, February 14, 2012]

Zhao Kezhi, governor of Guizhou, on Monday said in a news conference in Beijing that the local government has initiated a pilot relocation project for the first batch of 100,000 people this year. "In Guizhou, 1.5 million people live in mountains that barely provide the conditions for sustaining life," said Zhao. Explaining the necessity of the plan, Zhao said "even if we build roads to reach them, provide drinking water to them and work to alleviate poverty there for another 50 years, the problem still might not be addressed, in my opinion".

He said the relocation plan will take nine years to complete. In order to address complications that will arise when moving farmers from mountains into townships, the project will require massive funding as well as supportive policies that boost jobs.

More than 30,000 square kilometers of Guizhou's 170,000 square kilometers of territory can be classified as rocky desert terrain, according to official statistics. Yang Hongmin, a farmer from Jiangman village of Qinglong county, said rainwater has washed away the topsoil of his land, and Yang and other fellow villagers "had no choice but to sell blood to sustain themselves" 10 years ago. The situation at that time was so dire that rice was now only served during celebrations of marriage or new births, Yang said.

"Poverty and underdevelopment are two major problems Guizhou should address to realize common national prosperity," said Du Ying, deputy minister of the National Development and Reform Commission. China's top economic planner, at the conference. Though Guizhou's relocation plan is pending approval by the State Council, Zhao added that the Guizhou government has initiated a pilot plan because it is urgent to get the process under way. "When faced with difficulties that have emerged during Guizhou's development, our attitude is we can't wait any longer. We have to begin doing it while reporting to the senior leaders," Zhao said.

A total of 1.2 billion yuan from the provincial, city and county budget has already been allocated to facilitate the relocation of the first batch of 100,000 people from villages to townships or development zones, Zhao said. He added that senior citizens could get an allowance from social security funds and medical insurance. Jobs will be created for people in their 40s and 50s to help them adjust to the move.

Zhao said the government will buy 80,000 job posts in the service industry and the public welfare sector at the cost of 12,000 yuan to 15,000 yuan each. These jobs will be provided to the middle-aged. Vocational education and training will also be given to the youth during the relocation. "I talked with many villagers in the remote mountains, and they said they would like to move for their children," Zhao said. "Moving out is also done for the sake of improving their own lives," he said.

Village Guizhou Residents Will be Relocated to

Tom Phillips wrote in The Telegraph: “For a glimpse of what awaits them, Longtan's villagers can travel 65 miles to Songtao, another county of ethnic Miao people, where relocation is already under way. A roadside propaganda sign at the entrance to Yajia town reads: "TRY TO BUILD SONGTAO INTO A MODEL PLACE OF POVERTY RELIEF PROJECTS!" [Source: Tom Phillips, The Telegraph, November 12, 2012]

“On Ethnic Customs Street, Li Zhenze and his wife Chen Qunying showed off their brand-new second-floor apartment, fitted with all the trappings of urban life. Natives of the nearby Ma'an village, they moved to Yajia with their three children in September, paying for the apartment with a government subsidy and personal savings. "It's better than the countryside – but there is no land," said Mr Li, now unemployed and grappling with how to support his family in their new urban surroundings. Outside, an elderly settler used a wooden rake to dry grain on a brand-new concrete basketball court.

“Ma Qingxin, the local Communist Party chief, said relocation had dramatically improved villagers' lives. "Relocation is one effective way of poverty alleviation," he said, pointing to an industrial park and manganese processing plant being built near Yajia to provide jobs for the new arrivals. "Living is about [having] clothes, food, a home and access to transport. [But relocation] at least changes their poor living conditions. It is much better than living in the mountains." Analysts agree that the next generation of Chinese leaders must take urgent action to address the wealth gap, viewed as a potential trigger for unrest.

Doubts About the Guizhou Relocation Scheme

Tom Phillips wrote in The Telegraph: “But for all the fanfare surrounding Guizhou's anti-poverty drive, not all see relocation as the best way to address the problem. Some believe relocations exacerbate social tensions and can leave villagers even worse off, thrusting them into an unfamiliar world for which they were ill-prepared. Several villagers even said they were unsure if their relocation was related to poverty relief or simply to clear the way for money-spinning infrastructure projects. [Source: Tom Phillips, The Telegraph, November 12, 2012]

“Looking back at large scale population resettlements… since 1949, none have been very successful, and those started with very good intentions,” said Jing Jun, a sociologist from Beijing’s Tsinghua University and a leading authority on relocations. “I don’t know what will happen but there will be unintended consequences... Social engineering should really go through screening and consultation with the local people but I don’t think the government is willing to do that.” Prof Wang said that while such resettlements were generally positive, the views and rights of those being moved needed to be respected. "You are dealing with people. You are moving people, not cows or animals."

Simply moving people to new areas is not enough if they are not given the skills and opportunities to fend for themselves. "If there is no is no dramatic change in the macro-system, if the distribution of wealth does not happen properly, the rural-urban gap will continue [to grow] and the rich-poor [divide] will continue," he said. Such complexities are lost on the children of Longtan village, who are already gearing up for the move and – their parents hope – for a brighter, urban future. Inside their tatty-school house, a student had inscribed one final farewell onto the wall. "Bye-bye," it read, in English.

Yongning Green Migration Scheme

Sebastien Blanc of AFP wrote: On a dry plain in China's remote northern Ningxia region, thousands of neatly aligned, identical brick houses have sprung up from the dusty soil. This is the Yongning Green Migration Scheme, where 3,000 two-room houses are being built to accommodate 17,800 villagers from the poorer, mountainous south of the region. [Source: Sebastien Blanc, October 13, 2011]

Bu Xing'ai, director of external affairs for Ningxia, said authorities planned to move 350,000 people within the autonomous region over the next five years as he showed off the project to journalists on a recent visit. China's breakneck economic growth has been accompanied by huge population movements, as exemplified by Ningxia, where new towns have been quickly built, sometimes at the heart of semi-arid zones.

For the government, planned migration is a way of channelling the inevitable rural exodus and redistributing the labour supply to suit the country's needs. Authorities in Ningxia say those who move under the scheme will have a better quality of life than they do at present.A cement factory with the capacity to produce 4,500 tonnes of cement a day is being built to provide employment for the migrants. "Once they are here they will find roads, electricity, water, they will be able to find work at the factory and their children will be able to go to school," said Wu Guangning, deputy director for development and reform in Ningxia's Yongning county.

Many of the intended residents are Hui, a Muslim minority that has lived in the autonomous region of Ningxia for centuries. The local climate is dry, but the authorities have planned an irrigation scheme that would allow residents to grow grapes, mushrooms and goji berries — a highly nutritious fruit that is popular in the area.

It is not entirely clear why the scheme has been labelled "green". The roofs of the houses are to be fitted with solar panels, but they are not yet visible. Each house will cost 40,000 yuan ($6,275), but of that, the local government provided 30,000 yuan, said Wu.

Asked about the practicalities of getting mountain people to move to the desert, Wu said they were being encouraged to come and see the new settlement and decide whether they are "satisfied" with it. "They are currently living in very difficult conditions," he added.

With no one yet living in the new houses, and their proposed occupants living many hours' drive away, it was not clear how their satisfaction with the new housing might be gauged.So, the organisers of the trip took the journalists by bus to see a migrant who had agreed to be interviewed in his tiny home, where baskets of fruit had been laid out.Ma Guowen was dressed in a Muslim skull-cap and wearing his best jacket for the occasion. But the farm worker's comments on the benefits of the government rehousing scheme seem a little too pat to be convincing.

Ghettoization of China’s New Small Towns

Reporting from Huaming, a town near Tianjin and Beijing, Ian Johnson wrote in the New York Times: In 2010, “the Shanghai World Expo featured this newly built town as a model for how China would move from being a land of farms to a land of cities. In a dazzling pavilion visited by more than a million people, visitors learned how farmers were being given a new life through a fair-and-square deal that did not cost them anything. Today, Huaming may be an example of another transformation: the ghettoization of China’s new towns. [Source: Ian Johnson, New York Times, November 9, 2013 ~/~]

“Signs of social dysfunction abound. Young people, who while away their days in Internet cafes or pool halls, say that only a small fraction of them have jobs. The elderly are forced to take menial work to make ends meet. Neighborhood and family structures have been damaged. Most worrying are the suicides, which local residents say have become an all-too-familiar sign of despair. As China pushes ahead with government-led urbanization, many worry that the scores of new housing developments here may face the same plight as postwar housing projects in Western countries. Meant to solve one problem, they may be creating a new set of troubles that could plague Chinese cities for generations. ~/~]

“We’re talking hundreds of millions of people who are moving into these places, but the standard of living for these relocatees has actually dropped,” said Lynette Ong, a University of Toronto political scientist who has studied the resettlement areas. “On top of that is the quality of the buildings — there was a lot of corruption, and they skimped on materials.” Huaming is far from being a dangerous slum. It has no gangs, drug use or street violence. Nearly half the town is given over to green space. Trees line the streets that lead to elementary, middle and high schools. But the new homes have cracked walls, leaking windows and elevators with rusted out floors. ~/~] “The situation in these new towns contrasts with the makeshift housing where other migrants live. Many of those are created by farmers who chose to leave their land for jobs in the city. Although cramped and messy, they are full of vitality and upward mobility, said Biao Xiang, a social anthropologist at Oxford University who has studied migrant communities. “These migrant neighborhoods in big cities are often called slums, but it’s the new resettlement communities that will be harder to revive, partly because they are not related to any productive economic activity,” Professor Xiang said. “And the population tend to be homogeneous, disadvantaged communities.” ~/~

Creation of New Model Chinese Small Town

Ian Johnson wrote in the New York Times: “ In 2005, Huaming Township was chosen to be a demonstration for successful, planned urbanization. A township is an administrative unit in China above a village but below a county, and Huaming had 41,000 people living in 12 small villages dotted across 60 square miles, most of which was farmland. For northern China it was unusually fertile because water was plentiful. On the outskirts of one of China’s largest cities, the port of Tianjin, it was well known for its local handicrafts, such as decorative paper-cutting, and, especially, its vegetables that were easily sold in the big city. [Source: Ian Johnson, New York Times, November 9, 2013 ~/~]

City planners, however, saw it as a major problem. “The naturally formed villages had undergone disorderly developments resulting in low building density, in disarrayed industrial space and layout,” according to a publication explaining the need for change. (Officials refused requests for interviews, but have published copiously on the project, allowing insights into their thinking.) The villages had no sewage treatment, and were “dirty, messy and substandard.” The idea was to consolidate the villages into one new town called Huaming that would take up less than one square mile, versus the three square miles that the dozen villages had occupied. A portion of the remaining 59 square miles could be sold to developers to pay for construction costs, meaning the new buildings would cost farmers and the government nothing. The rest of the land would stay agricultural, but worked by a few remaining farmers using modern methods. This would achieve another aim: not reducing the amount of arable land — a crucial goal for a country with a huge population and historic worries about being able to feed itself. ~/~

“Construction started in March 2006, and was finished just 16 months later. The town is made up of six- to nine-story buildings divided into gated compounds of a dozen or so buildings each. Commercial space is officially limited to two streets, making the rest of town a quiet residential area centered on the new public schools. An attractive park and lake are given over at night to dancing and socializing. The biggest selling point in official literature is how space was to be allocated. Farmers would able to trade the living space in their farmhouse for the same-size apartment in the new town. Even the yard around the farmhouse figured into the equation.

Reality of a New Model Chinese Town: Not What Planners Anticipated

Ian Johnson wrote in the New York Times: “What happened was more complicated. Most families got 322 square feet per member. That is 22 square feet more than the average per capita living space in the city of Tianjin, but most of the new units were just 800 square feet, so a typical family of three would not get their full allotment. In theory, they could use the remaining allotment and spend their own money to purchase another unit, but most ended up with less floor space than they had on the farm. [Source: Ian Johnson, New York Times, November 9, 2013 ~/~]

“Some were still happy to take up the offer. In interviews, those most happy about the new plan already had nonfarming jobs and saw this as a way to get a modern apartment. “It’s survival of the fittest,” said Yang Huashuai, a 25-year-old electrician and gypsy-cab driver who said his family got three apartments. “If you don’t work hard, you don’t deserve to make it.” But many others did not want to leave their land. By 2008, the government’s offer had met limited success, with only half the population choosing to move. Already, though, government propaganda was extolling Huaming as a success, and officials planned to feature it at the world’s fair in two years’ time. ~/~

“They said if we didn’t move, it would affect the World Expo,” said Jia Qiufu, 69, a former resident of Guanzhuang Village. “They said it had to happen by 2009 because the Expo was the next year.” The local government used intense pressure to force farmers out of their villages. It tore up roads and cut electricity and water. Even so, thousands stayed on. As a final measure, the schoolhouses — one in each village — were demolished. With no utilities and no way to educate their children, most farmers capitulated and moved to town. ~/~

“Liu Baohua, an unemployed 62-year-old farmer, said the buildings were almost uninhabitable during the winter. “These buildings look modern outside, but they’re not,” Mr. Liu said. “It’s the worst quality.” Mr. Liu’s apartment leaks water from the ceiling, which he said maintenance crews told him they could not fix. Windows were double-glazed but the quality was bad and seals broken, causing them to mist up with condensation. Radiators, he said, had almost no hot water. He also showed work bills from maintenance visits in January confirming that his north-facing bedroom was 55 degrees. “We need to buy space heaters to survive here,” Mr. Liu said. His wife works as a street sweeper and the couple get the equivalent of welfare for an additional $60 a month. ~/~

“Some residents wonder why they went through these travails when so little development is visible. Outside the town, most of the former township lies empty. Some hotels and office blocks have been built next to the airport logistics center. But mostly, one is confronted by mile after mile of empty lots — once farmland, now lying fallow, sometimes blocked from view by endless sheet-metal fences painted with propaganda about prosperity and development. “Look at the empty fields,” said Wei Naiju, formerly of Guanzhuang Village. “That’s good earth; you could really plant something on it.” ~/~

“Driving through the demolished villages with former residents is especially poignant. Some of the streets are still serviceable but mostly one is surrounded by a gutted, bombed-out landscape of foundations overgrown with scrub and small trees. Given all the fallow land, claims that agricultural production would not suffer do not seem possible. Official propaganda material shows greenhouses that produce vegetables. Many greenhouses have indeed been built, but dozens were empty during a visit in June. Doors swung wildly in the wind and the clear plastic used to let the sun in was torn and flapping. Two greenhouses seemed to be functioning; local residents said they were used to make gifts of produce to visiting leaders as Potemkin-like proof of the still-vibrant agricultural sector. ~/~

Farmers Unqualified for Jobs in China’s Model Small Town

Ian Johnson wrote in the New York Times: “Besides dissatisfaction over the amount of space they would receive, farmers were most concerned about jobs, a common worry in other resettlement projects. In the official literature, Huaming had that taken care of. Compared with relocation projects in remote rural areas, such as southern Shaanxi Province, Huaming is next to a major transportation corridor, the Beijing-Tianjin Expressway. It is also adjacent to Tianjin’s massive airport logistics center, which is expanding and adding thousands of jobs. [Source: Ian Johnson, New York Times, November 9, 2013 ~/~]

“Many farmers said, however, that they were not qualified for these jobs. “We know how to farm, but not how to work in an office,” said Wei Dushen, a former resident of Guanzhuang Village now living in town. “Those are for educated people.” Almost uniformly, Huaming residents say the only jobs open to them are in dead-end menial positions, such as street sweepers or low-level security guards. These jobs pay the equivalent of $150 a month. Even so, competition for them is fierce.~/~

“Retraining was supposed to have allowed Huaming villagers a chance to get skills to compete. According to official literature, $1,500 was allotted for each resident. However, it was impossible to find any who had received retraining or had heard of anyone who had. For young people, the problems are especially acute. Even when they can get the well-paying menial jobs of $150 a month, residents overwhelmingly said this barely allowed them to make ends meet. Day care costs $100 per month per child, which would take a third of an average couple’s salary. Unlike in the villages, many families do not live near one another, making it hard to leave children with their grandparents. Costs are also high. Inflation has nearly doubled the price of rice, something the residents find especially galling because in the past they grew it themselves.” ~/~

Migrants Take Jobs Intended for Farmers Model Chinese Town

Ian Johnson wrote in the New York Times: “Poor migrants from other parts of China are willing to work for even less, often because they have lower living costs. Almost all the gardening in public spaces in Huaming, for example, is done by workers from the inland province of Henan who come for a short time and leave. Workers pruning bushes in the town’s beautifully manicured park, for example, said they were paid $100 a month and were happy for it. “Compared to Henan it’s good work,” said Zhuang Wei, 58, who said he lived in a room with five other men and ate simple canteen food offered by the company that had brought him to Huaming. “I’ll stick around here for a few months and then head back.” [Source: Ian Johnson, New York Times, November 9, 2013 ~/~]

“Other migrants, mostly from Shandong Province, dominate Huaming’s taxi industry because they have teams of experienced mechanics, drivers and dispatchers. “You can’t really compete with them,” said one local driver, Wei Zhen. “They’re professionals who have been doing this for years.” ~/~

Many young people seem to have given up trying to find work. Internet cafes are packed with them playing games. Although the cafes are supposed to be limited to the commercial streets, they are found in converted apartments in many housing blocks. In one, 28-year-old Zhang Wei said he had invested $4,300 to renovate an apartment and install computers. The unit’s former living room was packed with young people hunched over screens, many of them playing games like World of Warcraft for money. “They’re all unemployed local people, but without qualifications, what can they do?” Mr. Zhang said.~/~

Suicide and Despair in China’s New Small Towns

Ian Johnson wrote in the New York Times: “For many, the disappointment leads to suicides. Recently, residents said, a 19-year-old man ill with cancer flung himself off the family’s third-floor balcony at 5:30 a.m. and landed on the parking lot next to two vans serving breakfast. His father dead and his mother living on welfare, the family was too poor to afford further cancer treatment. The story could not be verified with the authorities but was repeated independently by residents. [Source: Ian Johnson, New York Times, November 9, 2013 ~/~]

“For farmers who were asked to surrender their ancestral lands for an apartment, the deterioration adds to a sense of having been cheated. “That was their land,” said Wei Ying, a 35-year-old unemployed woman whose parents live in a poorly built unit. “You have to understand how they feel in their heart.” The sense of despair and alienation surfaces in the suicides, a late-night leap from a balcony, drinking of pesticide or lying down on railroad tracks. ~/~

“I have anxiety attacks because we have no income, no job, nothing,” said Feng Aiju, 40, a former farmer who moved to Huaming in 2008 against her will. She said she had spent a small fortune by local standards, $1,500, on antidepressants. “We never had a chance to speak; we were never asked anything. I want to go home.” ~/~

“More common are stories of old people who cannot get used to the new lives and quickly die of illnesses. One term that residents repeatedly use is “biesi” — “stifled to death” in the new towers. “I’m tired, I’m so tired,” said an elderly woman who would give only her surname, Wei. In the past, Chinese farmers wanted sons because they lived at home, whereas daughters married into other families. Now, this is reversed because of the burden of having to help a son find a home or job. Mrs. Wei said her son had bought a car with the family savings but was losing money driving it. The family’s savings now almost exhausted, she said she did not know what to do. “It’s tough having a son,” she said, quietly weeping. “I wish I had a daughter.” ~/~

“The the life that once existed in the township has been memorialized in a museum. It is rarely open to the public, but its front door was ajar one day this past summer. Filled with full-scale dioramas of village homes and human figures, it was a re-creation of the old village life, accurate down to the dried corn hanging from the eaves. An introductory plaque explained: “Time goes by, and things change.” ~/~

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated July 2015


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