QIYAN COMMUNITY, China — After her husband started making good money as an electrician here in central China, Cao Qin ended years of working as a migrant laborer hundreds of miles away and came back home to better care for their son.
But Cao, 30, didn’t return to the family’s rugged adobe home in the hills. Instead, they all moved into a new third-floor apartment in this planned community of Qiyan that has been going up in a valley in southern Shaanxi province over the past couple of years as a new home for villagers scattered throughout nearby mountains.
Shops, markets, health clinics, schools and government offices are all within walking distance or a short motorcycle ride — a stark contrast from before for Cao.
“ I think it took me two hours on foot to come to the nearest town,” said Cao, one of the newest residents among the neat rows of townhomes and apartment blocks of Qiyan Community. “We are very satisfied.”
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Originally started as a disaster resettlement in 2010, the newly minted community has since been swept into China’s massive push to move millions of country folk into more urban settings to improve access to services and to shift from a factory-based economy to a consumer-driven, service-oriented one.
But there is a big problem: For most families, there is no work here, meaning that most of the region’s working-age people, as before, travel elsewhere for jobs. Some families are still holding out in the mountains because they can’t afford the new apartments and don’t have enough flexibility in how to use, let alone sell, the land they would leave behind.
China has no private land ownership, and rural lands are owned by village collectives.
Mountain villager Huang Tianbing is locked into a farm collective deal arranged by local officials that involves subleasing his land for a tea-tree business and caring after the trees. He said he makes only about $350 a year from it.
“We can hardly make a living and have no means to move out,” Huang said.
Scholars argue that successful urbanization requires a reform of China’s rural collectives and land laws to give farmers like him more opportunities for success.
China’s Communist Party leaders huddled in a high-level plenum in Beijing are expected to discuss these kinds of reform during consultations through Tuesday, with more comprehensive plans to be rolled out by year’s end.
Beijing sees urbanization as China’s next biggest engine for economic growth, with plans to turn 300 million rural folks into urban dwellers by 2030 — equivalent to relocating nearly the entire population of the United States.
China’s urbanization first picked up pace with market reforms in the early 1980s. By 2011, half the country’s population had moved into cities, but a rigid, decades-old household registration system that assigns either urban or rural status under the old planned economy created a new class of second-class people: rural laborers working in cities.
A recent study by Tsinghua University shows that only 27.6 percent of the country’s people have urban status with full claims to public urban services, while hundreds of millions of city dwellers with the rural status have limited education, health and pension benefits.
Land grabs by local officials have sparked violent conflicts with rural residents, and huge “ghost city” neighborhoods have been built with few residents moving in so far.
Scholars also fret that the rapid urbanization could exacerbate already bad air and water pollution and severely strain local governments tasked with providing public services.
In Qiyan Community, government workers are busy helping about 200 new families adjust to their new lifestyle.
They’re showing the newcomers that garbage should be deposited in bags to be collected, posting notices asking the residents not to let their kids pee in public, and have been trying — with little success — to stipulate that backyards are for flower beds, not cabbage patches.
The town eventually is expected to house 6,000 residents from nearby remote villages, and so far its demographics still resemble those of the rural communities it seeks to replace: mostly old people, women and small children, and hardly any young or middle-aged men — who are all working elsewhere.