Sunday, November 10, 2013

Poverty and place--and lack of purpose in nouveau urban China

Read the fourth installment of Ian Johnson's "Leaving the Land" series in the New York Times here.  It is headlined, "New China Cities:  Shoddy Homes, Broken Hopes."  This installment focuses on the city of Huaming, built over just 16 months to be a model for how China would transition from a nation of farms to a nation of cities.  It was constructed hurriedly starting in 2006 in order to be on display for the World Expo in 2010.

But Huaming has disappointed many of its residents, mostly displaced from their farms, and suicide is all too common.  The government often failed to deliver on promises to provide displaced farmers an apartment as large as their farm house, and other problems have arisen.  Johnson writes:
But the new homes have cracked walls, leaking windows and elevators with rusted out floors. For farmers who were asked to surrender their ancestral lands for an apartment, the deterioration adds to a sense of having been cheated.
He quotes Wei Ying, a 35-year-old unemployed woman whose parents live in a poorly built unit:  
That was their land.  You have to understand how they feel in their heart.
Another resident who moved to Huaming five years ago against her will, 40-year-old former farmer Feng Aiju says she has spent $1500 on anti-depressants:
I have anxiety attacks because we have no income, no job, nothing. We never had a chance to speak; we were never asked anything. I want to go home.
Feng Aiju says she has spent some $1500 on anti-depressants.  

Perhaps most interesting is the unfavorable comparison between these new cities and the makeshift housing where migrants to more established cities live:  
Many of those [migrant camps] are created by farmers who chose to leave their land for jobs in the city. Although cramped and messy, they are full of vitality and upward mobility, said Biao Xiang, a social anthropologist at Oxford University who has studied migrant communities.
These migrant neighborhoods in big cities are often called slums, but it’s the new resettlement communities that will be harder to revive, partly because they are not related to any productive economic activity.  And the population tend to be homogeneous, disadvantaged communities.
Part of what drove the government push to urbanize Huaming was the official view of the place as it was--16 villages spread over about three square miles that a government publication called "dirty, messy and substandard." The document stated:
The naturally formed villages had undergone disorderly developments resulting in low building density, in disarrayed industrial space and layout.
But by 2008, the Chinese government was unhappy with the pace of the project--in particular, progress in buying out farmers.
The local government used intense pressure to force farmers out of their villages. It tore up roads and cut electricity and water. Even so, thousands stayed on. As a final measure, the schoolhouses — one in each village — were demolished. With no utilities and no way to educate their children, most farmers capitulated and moved to town.
Now those farmers are mostly unemployed, unable to compete for jobs in nearby cities because they lack the necessary education.  Johnson quotes one farmer:
We know how to farm, but not how to work in an office.
Previous installments in this series on China's push to urbanize are here, here, and here.

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