Pitfalls Abound in China's Push From Farm to City

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XI'AN, China -- Li Yongping sat in a darkened conference room, his face illuminated by an enormous map of southern Shaanxi Province projected on a wall-size screen. He nodded to an assistant and the screen split: the province on one side and a photograph of a farmer on the other.

"These people are moving out of here," he said, gesturing to the mountains that dominate the province's south. "And they're moving here," he said, pointing to the farmer's newly built concrete home. "They are moving into the modern world."

Mr. Li is directing one of the largest peacetime population transfers in history: the removal of 2.4 million farmers from mountain areas in the central Chinese province of Shaanxi to low-lying towns, many built from scratch on other farmers' land. The total cost is estimated at $200 billion over 10 years.

It is one of the most drastic displays of a concerted government effort to end the dominance of rural life, which for millenniums has been the keystone of Chinese society and politics. While farmers have been moving to cities for decades, the government now says the rate is too slow. An urbanization blueprint that is due to be unveiled this year would have 21 million people a year move into cities. But as is often the case in China, formal plans only codify what is already happening. Besides the southern Shaanxi project, removals are being carried out in other areas, too: in Ningxia, 350,000 villagers are to be moved, while as many as two million transfers are expected in Guizhou Province by 2020.

All told, 250 million more Chinese may live in cities in the next dozen years. The rush to urbanize comes despite concerns that many rural residents cannot find jobs in the new urban areas or are simply unwilling to leave behind a way of life that many cherish.

The push has the support of the highest reaches of the government, with the new prime minister, Li Keqiang, a strong proponent of accelerated urbanization. The campaign to depopulate the countryside is seen as the best way to maintain China's spectacular run of fast economic growth, with new city dwellers driving demand for decades to come.

The effort is run by officials like Mr. Li in Xi'an, who speaks emotionally about wanting to help push China's 700 million rural residents into the 21st century. Heirs to imperial China's Mandarin officials, modern-day Communist Party officials like Mr. Li speak knowingly of what is best for China's 1.3 billion people, where they should live and how they should earn a living.

"An objective rule in the process of modernization," he said, "is we have to complete the process of urbanization and industrialization."

One of the mantras that officials repeat about the Shaanxi project is that it is voluntary, although interviews suggest that not all of those who are being moved agree.

China's previously largest migration project was to resettle about 1.2 million people for the Three Gorges Dam. That was mandatory: villages and towns were flooded, and people had no choice but to move. This new effort will take place over a decade or more, and those who wish to stay on the farm may do so, at least for a while, officials say. They promise generous subsidies for moving and a better standard of living, including jobs, in the new urban areas.

But in the mountains 200 miles south of Mr. Li's offices, one of the project's showpieces illustrates the complications he faces. The onetime village of Qiyan became a focus of national attention in 2010 when a landslide in a nearby ravine killed 29 people. Provincial leaders immediately made the disaster a case study of why the removals were necessary.

Qiyan, previously a village of 200 households, was designated a town, and its lower reaches were leveled and rebuilt with towers to house 6,000 people. Those living in the surrounding hills were encouraged to live in the valley -- and not in big cities like Xi'an. The process is known as chengzhenhua, moving into towns, and has become one of the most-debated topics in China. The idea is to limit the number of megacities by keeping farmers closer to the land they farmed instead of moving them to giant cities. The problem is jobs, or the lack of them, in these areas.

During a visit in February, townspeople sat in their front yards, huddled around open fires. Their homes were brand-new, with indoor heating and modern appliances, just as Mr. Li's plan envisions, but it all runs on an unaffordable luxury: electricity. Hence the fires to keep warm.

"Back when we lived in the mountains we had monthly electric bills of 10 yuan," or renminbi (about $1.60), said Lin Jiaqing, a farmer who moved to Qiyan two years ago. "But one month we had to pay 670 yuan" -- about $110 -- "so from now on we don't heat or even use the washing machine."

Mr. Lin and others still officially classified as rural residents agreed that living in the mountains had its drawbacks. He spent about 11 months of every year on an assembly line far away in Jiangsu Province. He said he appreciated the safety of the new homes.

"If you're far away working, you can't rest easily thinking of your family up in the hills facing the dangers of another landslide," he said.

The apartments, however, cost about $19,000. A government subsidy covers about a quarter of that, and the government credit cooperative provides an interest-free loan for another quarter.

That still means families must come up with what for them is a staggering $10,000 to buy an apartment and then $5,000 more within three years to pay back the government loan. And that is just for a concrete shell. Most people spend thousands of dollars more on paint, lighting, televisions and washing machines.

All of this helps push up domestic demand, just as intended, but it forces painful choices.

"Our daughter was doing well at high school, but when we had to buy this apartment, she knew we couldn't afford to send her to college," said Mr. Lin's wife, He Shifang.

The daughter dropped out of high school and is working in the southern city of Shenzhen as a clerk at a travel agency.

Mr. Lin said the additional income would allow the family to pay off the mortgage.

Others have a tougher time.

"I don't have the money now," said Cai Dawei, who bought his apartment in 2010 hoping to find employment in the new town. An industrial park was built, but it is empty except for a seasonal processing plant for a small tea plantation. Residents estimate that 20 people work there. Almost everyone else is either unemployed or works in factories in distant places where migrant workers are not allowed to put down permanent roots.

At 48, Mr. Cai said he is too old to work in factories, which generally prefer younger workers. His three-year loan is due this autumn, and Mr. Cai said he hoped his son, who had taken a factory job, could pay off the family debts. Without a plot of land to farm, Mr. Cai said, he will also have to rely on his son for money to buy food.

His wife, Lü Minqin, said she most regretted buying a 46-inch, $700 flat-screen television, which uses too much electricity, and a $200 washing machine. At the time, they seemed like part of being a modern city person, she said, but now they sit unused.

Ms. Lü thought of moving back, but when she visited their homestead, she was shocked.

"They planted trees everywhere, and there are wild pigs!" Ms. Lü said. "You can't really go back anyway because they tore down our home."

When asked about the situation, the Chinese official leading the effort, Mr. Li, said he was aware of these issues and was taking steps to improve planning.

"We are listening to ordinary people and making adjustments all the time," Mr. Li said. "We aren't blindly following one plan."

Mr. Li's focus on ordinary people mirrors growing concerns at the top levels of government that urbanization is currently being carried out to satisfy abstract targets instead of improving people's livelihood. After a meeting of a parliamentary committee in early July, the government issued a document stating that while urbanization "is the only path to modernization," it must be planned better.

Tall and vigorous, Mr. Li, 54, is an unusually open and frank official. His title is executive vice commander of the project, and he reports to the deputy governor. But as a lifelong grass-roots Communist Party cadre, Mr. Li knows how local officials pull the wool over the eyes of higher officials like himself. "You have to talk to the people," Mr. Li said, and not rely on good-news reports from underlings.

To do this, he makes extended field visits, but he relies mainly on his high-tech database that he projects on the wall and pores over like a general plotting a campaign. Pointing to the photograph of the farmer in front of her new home, Mr. Li said that in the future, migrants would be able to see their personal information online to verify whether they had received the correct compensation for their land, a modern check on corruption.

Besides running the relocation office, Mr. Li is chief executive of a state-run company that has raised $1 billion from state enterprises and banks to start the work -- a possible model for the national urbanization plan.

Under the plan, this money is supposed to be a pump primer for a self-sustaining process of people moving into towns, finding jobs, becoming taxpayers and replenishing government coffers. This is also the way Beijing intends most investment in urbanization to work out, with the enormous costs -- in new schools, hospitals and apartments -- borne by the new wealth generated by the migration.

As for the lack of jobs, Mr. Li pulled out a study he is in the middle of revising. It was a random telephone survey of 1,000 households by an outside agency. He pointed out that the study acknowledged that few residents could find work locally and were forced to travel far for employment.

"This is something we haven't done well," Mr. Li said. "But we're working on this: we're building roads and industrial parks and will create an environment so companies will come to these areas."

Although he insisted that it was up to rural dwellers whether they wanted to relocate, Mr. Li added that eventually everyone must move. China cannot wait for the people to relocate into cities of their own accord, he said. "People have been leaving the mountains to work in the cities on their own, but this hasn't happened fast enough."

One reason for the urgency is that water from the mountains runs off into one of China's largest engineering projects: the diversion of water through rivers and canals from China's south to its arid north. Reforesting the mountains will keep the water cleaner, Mr. Li said.

He also said the mountains are dangerous, with regular landslides and other natural catastrophes. No one will be permitted to live in these areas, he said. In addition, he called southern Shaanxi a drag on the provincial economy. The poor farmers must become higher-earning urbanites, Mr. Li said.

Underlying the project seems to be a distaste among city dwellers for rural life. During the Cultural Revolution, Mr. Li lost his chance at a college education because the country's leader, Mao Zedong, closed schools and sent young people to work in the countryside. Mr. Li said the time helped him understand the plight of peasants, but like many elites in China he also speaks dismissively of rural life.

"They need to shower more often, but how can they shower on a dirt floor?" Mr. Li said of the farmers and their old adobe homes in the mountains. "If you don't shower a lot, that's no good. Put simply, we want to teach ordinary Chinese people to bid farewell to several backward ways of living."

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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