For all of its long history, China has been defined as a rural country– from the farmers who Confucius lauded as society’s backbone to the hardworking folk in Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth and the peasant army that Mao rode to power. Now, in what is proving to be one of the most wrenching and tumultuous changes in the country’s 35-year drive to modernize, rural China is being destroyed. In its place are instant cities and favela-type housing projects planned by government officials who equate an urban China with a modern one.

Like any mega-trends, this one has been gathering steam for several years. But it is no stretch to say that the country is now at a tipping point.

Demographically, China has just passed one key marker: for the first time in its history it now has more people living in towns and cities than the countryside. This is partly due to migrant workers looking for jobs in cities–a well-documented trend. But it’s increasingly driven by grand government plans to drive most of the remaining farmers off the land and into cities. Over the coming years, officials say the urban population will grow by another 300 million people to about 70 percent of China’s 1.3 billion.

The reason for this sudden push is a the Communist Party’s vision of modernity. Urbanizing China is the pet project of China’s incoming premier, Li Keqiang, and widely touted by economists as a key to restructuring the economy to a  consumer-oriented one. It’s also an important way for local governments to make money; barred from levying taxes, local governments are expropriating farmland, selling it to developers and using the profits to run operations.

Other government policies designed to protect farms paradoxically lead to more land seizures and the destruction of tens of thousands of villages. Central government policies require the state to keep a minimum of 120 million hectares of land in cultivation. Growing cities, however, eat into farmland. So officials move farmers in remote areas to newly built housing towers, level their village and convert it farmland. The net gain in arable land there allows them to annex other farmland closer to cities. Thus even farmers in parts of the country far from cities are feeling the pressure of this enormous government campaign.

These top-down projects underlie much of the unrest that gets reported. Most of the 100,000-plus protests in China last year were due to rural protests over government land grabs, according to Chinese academics. Farmers are angry at the low compensation they get but also at the bleak prospects they have in the cities. Although forced off their land, most still retain the legal status of rural residents, meaning they aren’t eligible to use urban schools, hospitals or social insurance programs.

The financial costs can cripple a family for a lifetime. After losing their family homestead, they often have to buy an apartment in the new housing towers. Many are forced to work as laborers to pay off this debt, with their children left behind to be raised in brutal orphanages where they are sometimes mistreated and poorly fed. Some researchers have even quantified this: children from rural orphanages are three inches shorter than kids who don’t attend these institutions.

Equally poignant are the loss of ancient traditions and ways of life. Not only is China’s rural architectural heritage being obliterated–over 30,000 villages have been destroyed in the past decade–but ancient folkways (religious rituals, temple fairs, music and dance)–are being destroyed as performers are uprooted and resettled far apart. Ironically, much of this is being listed by the government on UNESCO and local “intangible cultural heritage” registers, which are claims as proof of China’s soft power. In fact, they are all disappearing as part of this process, often living in bleak housing complexes–a new underclass on the edge of China’s great cities.

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