Sunday, July 14, 2013

Is disdain for the rural driving China's urbanizing push?

Today, Ian Johnson filed Part II of his New York Times series on China's massive plan to accelerate the nation's urbanization.  The headline is "Pitfalls Abound in China's Push from Farm to City."  Read Part I here, and my post about it here.  As the headline suggests, this installment focuses on what isn't going well with China's effort to move 21 million people a year into cities, many of those cities built from scratch (or atop tiny villages) on former farmland.  An excerpt follows:
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. 
Johnson quotes Mr. Li:
An objective rule in the process of modernization is we have to complete the process of urbanization and industrialization.
While the "party line" is that the process is voluntary--that farmers and other villagers are willingly moving to cities--Johnson's interviews with some of those who have been resettled revealed some discontent.  One big issue is that those moving to new apartments in the city are struggling to pay for those apartments (which cost about $19,000) and the electricity it costs to keep them warm and to run new appliances like washing machines and televisions.  Whereas electricity bills in villages might have run to the Chinese equivalent of $1.60/family, they are as high as $110/month in the new cities.

Another big issue is lack of jobs.  Those who previously lived off what their farms produced, sometimes supplemented by stints of work in cities, now do not have even what they grow to fall back on.  Yet unemployment in the new cities is high.  Industrial parks are built, but they are largely empty according to Johnson's report.

And many are unhappy about leaving behind a way of life they cherish.

Meanwhile, a parliamentary committee issued a report earlier this month confirming the view that urbanization "is the only path to modernization," but acknowledging that it must be better planned.

But by far the most interesting part of the story from my perspective is Johnson's speculation about what--other than economics--is motivating the Chinese government to push urbanization:  disdain for rural life dnd a certain backlash against the Cultural Revolution, when so many of this generation of leaders were sent to the countryside and denied higher education.  Johnson suggests that a "distaste among city dwellers for rural life" may be driving the government's migration push.  Johnson writes:
 Mr. Li said the time [in the countryside, during the Cultural Revolution] 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.”

1 comment:

Terrell said...

This is fantastic!