Preparing for China’s urban billion

Rob Schmitz Mar 12, 2014

Preparing for China’s urban billion

Rob Schmitz Mar 12, 2014

Imagine close to the entire population of the U.S. picking up and moving somewhere else.

That’s the scale of China’s urbanization campaign: 250 million farmers moving to the city over the next 15 years. For those Chinese nervous about how this will transform – well, everything in their country, Premier Li Keqiang told his countrymen this week not to worry: “We will strive to enable everyone has equal opportunity, regardless of whether you come from the city or the countryside,” Li said, during his work report at the opening of the annual National People’s Congress.

These soothing words – echoing the government’s “Chinese Dream,” the theme of leader Xi Jinping’s new China – haven’t made believers of everyone.

In Southwest China, the city of Chongqing is being used as a test case for transitioning rural Chinese to change their residency status to urban residents. The government is persuading millions of farmers there to move to the city. When I ask a group of them, “How’s it going?” I get an earful – dozens of people speaking in the sweeping tones of the Sichuanese dialect yell over each other, complaining in unison.

The voice of Tan Congshu rises above the rest. “In the countryside, we grow our own vegetables and slaughter a pig when we want to eat,” she says. “Here, everything costs money. Electricity, water, rent, food…everything!”

Tan just moved from her farm in the village of Wanzhou to this low-rent urban housing project near Chongqing’s airport. She says if this is part of a national test, it’s already an epic fail. Dozens of curious onlookers nod in agreement. We’re standing in the shadow of a more than a dozen gray towers, each thirty stories high. The city built them to house more than 50,000 transplants from the farm.

Above the courtyard hangs a red propaganda banner. In white Chinese characters, it reads: “Deepen reform and unleash the power to realize the Chinese Dream!”

It’s sandwiched between banners warning residents about gas leaks and stray dogs.

Many here say they’ve forfeited their farms to the government in exchange for urban residency status, which provides health, retirement and education benefits for their children. But others, like Mrs. Tan, refused to give up their land – Tan’s apartment here belongs to her son.

“The government offered me $200 to change my status from a rural to urban resident,” Tan says. “They said it would be good for me and that they wouldn’t take my land, but I didn’t believe them.”

Chongqing’s government is willing to give rural Chinese access to urban schools and health care, for a price – in many cases, the government wants their land. Many, like Tan, are refusing to part with their land, putting a kink in China’s urbanization plan.

“The issue now is whether or not this can be implemented, and I have a lot of doubts,” says Kam Wing Chan, a professor at the University of Washington who specializes his research on China’s urbanization campaign.

He says China’s government will have to give better incentives to rural Chinese to persuade them to move to the city – he says the future health of China’s economy depends on this.

“China’s been talking about creating domestic consumption,” says Chan, “And now it’s harder because the urban population replacement rate is actually now negative.”

Chan says China’s plan for an urban consumer-based economy is at risk. And even if farmers are persuaded to move to the city, they may not become model consumers.

In the Chongqing district of Xinqiao, I ask another group of urbanized farmers how they like life in the city. Again, a chorus of screaming. It seems everywhere I go in this city, this question causes a social disturbance. Within minutes, two dozen people crowd around my microphone to complain.

Their apartments are older – resident Wang Xueying says they’re in terrible shape. She says most of the farmers haven’t found jobs in the city and do nothing but sit around. “After the local government took our land and demolished our homes, they put us here – but we still had to pay money,” complains Wang. “They told us the value of our old homes wasn’t enough to cover the cost of these tiny apartments.”

The Xinqiao government refused interview requests from Marketplace. But the displaced people here say local officials who sold their farmland made a killing. They say the money was embezzled so that party officials could buy luxury cars and fancy apartments. “If this is what urbanization is like,” screams one elderly resident, “I’d prefer to leave China altogether.”

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