Photos and text by Justin Jin
2017 – For generations, Li Rui’s family picked vegetables on his family’s plot in a breadbasket region in eastern China blanketed by agricultural fields.
Now, Li harvests scrap metal. As he stands on the rubble that was once his farmhouse, the 60-year-old farmer bends down to pocket bits of twisted wire, screws, and whatever else he can sell to recycling plants for a few cents a kilo. His land, seized by government authorities a few years ago to make way for a phalanx of condos, now yields only construction waste.
Devoid of skills for an urban economy, Li is one of millions of newly landless farmers forced to adapt to a new life as China hurtles towards a massive new phase of urbanization.
The upheaval of Li’s life was as abrupt as it was complete.
“The authorities gave us two weeks’ notice,” he says, standing in front of the curtain of buildings under construction, pegged to the sky by a line of cranes. “We packed hurriedly and left”.
Faced with shrinking exports to Europe and the USA, Communist leaders are pushing ahead with an historic plan to convert 100 million farmers to urbanites over six years – from 2014 to 2020. But rather than bring the farmers to already congested cities, the government wants to bring the city to them, converting their fields to apartments, industrial parks, and commercial centers. Breaking the cycle of subsistence farming, China hopes to develop backwaters across the country into newly productive centres and markets, with a new population of consumers.
The government lays out this massive ambition in its 30-chapter national plan detailing the creation of 11 urban clusters with higher value jobs, energy efficient office blocks and homes, modern amenities, and record breaking high-speed transport.
China’s rural diaspora began around the 1980s, when 80% of its workforce was in small-scale agriculture. As of 2016, the World Bank’s figures show China’s rural population receding to 43%. China now has more than 600 cities, with 100 of them holding a population above 1 million. Many of them were villages or small towns just a few decades ago. The economic exodus that made China the “factory of the world” also lifted hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty.
By 2030, China is expected to catch up with western nations like Germany and the USA, targeting an urbanisation level of 70-80%. This translates to roughly one billion Chinese working and living in cities.
But now the government, not the economy, dictates this new period of resettlement, forcefully upgrading its residents to move the whole of China, not just the key cities, up the value chain.
“The problem is that the largest cities are much more attractive to most migrants because they have more jobs and higher wages. Therefore, China’s urbanization policies are fighting against the natural tendency of population flows,” says Ernan Cui, an analyst at Gavekal Dragonomics in Beijing.
The largest cluster will be the Jing-Jin-Ji mega-region with Beijing as its core, home to a projected 130 million people in surrounding cities, towns and villages. Linked to the center by a network of high-speed trains, the region extends the tentacles of an urban population across a greater area. With reasonable commutes to major centres, smaller towns and cities can grow and take over the burden of congested urban centres.
The other crown jewel is the “Pearl River Delta”, named after the river that meanders through southern Guangdong province. When I worked in Shenzhen as a young Reuters reporter in the late 1990s, the city was divined by the Chinese government to be the next big thing. At the time, the government’s optimism was hard to see in the sleazy border town grown out of paddy fields where Hong Kongers would cross over on weekends to hunt for bargains, cheap nail salons, or sex.
Spurred by favourable government policy and economic migration, Shenzhen is expected to eclipse Hong Kong in GDP next year. The “new Silicon Valley” that has now 12 million — compared with 30,000 in 1979 — hosts China’s biggest tech companies (think Tencent and Huawei), attracting hordes of PhDs from all over the country. The city now connects with its rapidly growing neighbors Guangzhou, Macau, and Zhuhai as a megalopolis with a recorded population over 108.5 million in the 2015 census – about a third the size of the US.
These numbers are almost unfathomable. Through photographing the stories of individual farmers swept up by these abrupt changes across my mother country, I set out to explore the human side of a phenomenon that is shaping the world’s future super power. Every picture in this accompanying photo essay shows areas that were farmland just a few years ago. Most of the characters are farmers in new guises, each with a story of wrenching loss, and new beginning.
Buildings, or even entire compounds, are often baked out of the same mold to allow for rapid replication across the country. Some pop-up cities are already inhabited, and others are little more than shells – “ghost cities” to skeptics. But the Chinese government has proven its resolve in populating them through both incentive and decree. Shanghai’s Pudong financial district, the prototype of new-city planning, was built on duck ponds 30 years ago. Few then could imagine the area rocketing to a powerhouse of world finance.
Critics call this practice of stacking farmers to free land for commercial use “warehousing.” Supporters say greatly improves efficiency, combats pollution, and prepares China’s infrastructure for even more ambitious projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative connecting China’s trade with the rest of the world.
For a country with a large pool of under-utilized resources, this is an effective development policy. Yet, such a levitation act only works when times are good. As China is growing at around 7% per year, it can grow out of a lot of non-performing loans and government deficits. But if it slows a few percentage points, credit would tighten, and construction projects could freeze, turning landless farmers into hordes of the angry and unemployed.
And the policies carry high social costs.
Luo Meiling, 44, was involuntarily moved into her compensation block two years ago in a newly reclaimed area outside a city in China’s south. She greets me at the
elevator on the 23rd floor, and takes me through her gated front door into her apartment.
Her two-bedroom flat is neatly laid out, with a spacious living room and bright windows that look, for now, over a mass of half-built highrises. Her husband’s status as the former village secretary did little to shield them from being forced out of their home.
“My heart broke when they knocked down my family house,” says Luo. “But look, our apartment is clean, there’s a toilet, and there are no mosquitoes and no need to labour in the fields”.
Depending on local rules, each member of a displaced family is allotted 40 – 80 square meters of apartment space. With a family of five, and her husband’s former position, Luo’s family got three 100 meter apartments.
Reincarnated as urbanites, some mostly older former farmers descend into destitution with no land or skills, sleeping on the street around labor centres to be there when employers come hiring for casual work in the morning.
While the government’s plan calls for retraining in state employment agencies, the farmers I spoke with are largely supplying the unskilled labor to build the cities up around them. Many men work constructing the apartments they will move into and the schools their children will join, while women typically work in supportive industries, cooking the meals these new construction workers now have at canteens and street restaurants instead of at home. The younger generation can work in a new high tech assembly center, become an estate agent of the half-finished buildings, or take up other jobs that a new city offers.
Few lucky former farmers who got kicked out of premium plots find themselves flush with large compensations and time, leading a life of luxury compared to days slogging through agricultural chores. Enterprising folks turn their allotted units into karaoke bars or massage parlours, catering to men from the neighbourhood; others transform their garages into restaurants.
Guarding against excesses, loudspeakers broadcast a litany of instructions for a new bourgeois class: “Comrades, be civilized”; “Forbidden to raise pigs and ducks in the communal garden”; “Avoid prostitution, gambling and drugs.” The messages play in a repetitive loop.
Most people I meet lie between the extremes. Luo works as a shop assistant while her husband, the former village chief, has a small business importing goods from the Muslim province of Xinjiang. They play mahjong with relatives to pass the time.
Behaviors are changing fast. In a new area south of Beijing, I met a group of chain-smoking former farmers in their 50s sitting around a communal picnic table admiring a well-groomed dog. Its canine cousins living in farms are usually less lucky, chained to the front door as a guard dogs or served in a hot pot.
But some habits repeated over centuries are difficult to shake. Between the towering real estate, farmers squeeze crops out of tiny plots of temporary fields. Groups of construction workers jump over plantations of sweet potatoes, beans, cabbage and ginger as they navigate building sites. Yang Feiyan, a gregarious woman in her late 40s I met while strolling in a northern Chinese city, plucked out the communal flowers in front of her block to grows vegetables. For irrigation, she drilled a hole through the concrete garden tiles to insert a manual pump. Her neighbour circled off an area among planted trees with a metal fence to rear chicken. He also had pigs sniffing between parked cars, but that proved too much for the authorities.
“We are not allowed to plant crops here, but no one cares,” says Yang. “We grow what we can until they stop us.”
What does not carry over are social relationships, notwithstanding efforts to migrate villages to the same buildings. Former hierarchies are shattered, and Luo’s husband no longer enjoys the prestige as village secretary; most people become insular, keeping to themselves inside their apartments.
Despite 35 years of economic reforms, this is not a change all Chinese people endure quietly. Land disputes rising from urbanization account for tens of thousands of protests each year. Farmers are mostly angry at the outsized profits local authorities make from the land that, even though they do not own, have had decades-long leaseholds from the village collective.
One sticking point in the masterplan is China’s household registration system that assigns citizens a residence at birth. Starting in 1960, this system has been used as an internal passport to bar migration from rural areas to overcrowded cities. Those who chose to migrate anyway are mostly deprived of access to free medical care, public schools and other social benefits, effectively creating an underclass.
The recent clearing out of migrant suburbs in Beijing is a haunting reminder of their status. After a November 18th apartment fire, the government pushed thousands of migrants from their homes on the city’s outer edges in the name of a fire safety operation; most residents saw it rather as an anti-settlement raid that left large areas destroyed.
With swathes of China’s already scarce farmland given to industry and farmers at work in factories, urbanization is putting further pressure on food production.
China must feed a fifth of the world’s population with about 7% of its arable land, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, and nearly half of that land has been left toxic by decades of unchecked development.
In the late 1990s, traveling in China I could see traditional Chinese rice fields everywhere, with farmers tilling them like their ancestors did, using centuries-old methods to grow and irrigate. That sight is disappearing fast.
To make up for the loss of agricultural resources, China is developing a modern industrialized agriculture system by spending billions on water systems, seeds, robots and data science to develop high-yield farms. The world’s most populous country is also increasingly becoming a net food importer, scouring land from as far as Africa and food producers from the USA. In 2014, around the same time this urbanisation drive began, China quietly dropped its decades-old policy of self-sufficiency in grain, a sacred tenet in the Communist ideology.
Here at the construction site, Li struggles in a dusty and torn grey suit as he scavenges, sweat streaming down his face and dripping on soil that once provided him with food.
I ask Li how he feels, now that his home and land is no more. He stands up, arches his back and points to the gleaming towers behind us.
“You see the apartment blocks there? We will move in soon,” Li says, flush with pride.
Skeptics of this plan point to other parts of the world such as Brazil and Mexico, where farmers forced from their land face scarce opportunity. The latest set of urbanization-related policies not only does not free up population flows around the country, they reinforced many existing restrictions, says analyst Cui. For prospective rural migrants to the city, barriers to settling in the most prosperous cities are rising. This could be counter-productive to China as a whole.
“By trying to micromanage how its population moves around the country, China could be sapping one of its historic growth drivers,” says Cui.
As a Chinese living abroad, I look at this with the perspective of both a concerned citizen and questioning outsider. As I crisscross the country trying to get closer to a reasonable truth, I get a feeling that Beijing has gotten the overall maths right. Evidence has so far been in Beijing’s favor, with wealth rising broadly across its population, driven by consumption as the plan intended. Yet, the mass transformation of farmers puts into sharp focus questions about individuals’ rights and the path humanity is heading. What happens to the earth when 16 million subsistence farmers clamor to join the consumptive middle class every year?
The People’s Republic intends to accomplish in a few decades what the modern industrialized countries have taken more than a century to achieve. This new form of urbanization, marching to the drumbeat of involuntary modernization, forces millions of Chinese farmers to be at once the victim and beneficiary of change.