BEIJING — China is pushing ahead with a sweeping plan to move 250 million rural residents into newly constructed towns and cities over the next dozen years — a transformative event that could set off a new wave of growth or saddle the country with problems for generations to come.
The government, often by fiat, is replacing small rural homes with high-rises, paving over vast swaths of farmland and drastically altering the lives of rural dwellers. So large is the scale that the number of brand-new Chinese city dwellers will approach the total urban population of the United States — in a country already bursting with megacities.
This will decisively change the character of China, where the Communist Party insisted for decades that most peasants, even those working in cities, remain tied to their tiny plots of land to ensure political and economic stability. Now, the party has shifted priorities, mainly to find a new source of growth for a slowing economy that depends increasingly on a consuming class of city dwellers.
The shift is occurring so fast, and the potential costs are so high, that some fear rural China is once again the site of radical social engineering. Over the decades, the Communist Party has flip-flopped on peasants’ rights to use land: giving small plots to farm during 1950s land reform, collectivizing a few years later, restoring rights at the start of the reform era and now trying to obliterate small landholders.
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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.
China has long been home to both some of the world’s tiniest villages and its most congested, polluted examples of urban sprawl. The ultimate goal of the government’s modernization plan is to fully integrate 70 percent of the country’s population, or about 900 million people, into city living by 2025. Currently, only half that number are.
The building frenzy is on display in places like Liaocheng, which grew up as a center for wheat farmers in the North China Plain. It is now ringed by scores of 20-story towers housing now-landless farmers 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.
Aggressive state spending is planned on new roads, hospitals, schools, community centers — which could cost upward of $600 billion a year, according to economists’ estimates. In addition, vast sums will be needed to pay for the education, health care and pensions of the ex-farmers.
While the economic fortunes of many have improved in the mass move to cities, unemployment and other social woes have also followed the enormous dislocation. Some young people feel lucky to have jobs that pay survival wages of about $150 a month; others while away their days in pool halls and video-game arcades.
On the ground, however, the new wave of urbanization is well under way. 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, achieving an urbanized China much faster than would occur organically.
The primary motivation for the urbanization push is to change China’s economic structure, with growth based on domestic demand for products instead of relying so much on export. In theory, new urbanites mean vast new opportunities for construction companies, public transportation, utilities and appliance makers, and a break from the cycle of farmers consuming only what they produce.
The costs of this top-down approach can be steep. In one survey by Landesa in 2011, 43 percent of Chinese villagers said government officials had taken or tried to take their land. That is up from 29 percent in a 2008 survey.
Farmers are often unwilling to leave the land because of the lack of job opportunities in the new towns. Working in a factory is sometimes an option, but most jobs are far from the newly built towns.
“Urbanization can launch a process of value creation,” said Xiang Songzuo, chief economist with the Agricultural Bank of China and a deputy director of the International Monetary Institute at Renmin University. “It should start a huge flow of revenues.”