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Another Great Leap

China Uproots 100 Million Farmers

By Justin Jin

For generations, Li Rui’s family picked vegetables on his family’s plot in China. Recently, the 60-year-old farmer has been returning to the same land to harvest scrap metal. He bends down to pocket bits of twisted wire, screws, and whatever else he can sell for a few cents a kilo. The land, appropriated by government authorities to make way for a phalanx of condos, yields construction waste instead of food. Devoid of skill, Li is one of millions of newly landless farmers forced to adapt to a new urban life as China hurtles towards massive new phase of urbanisation.

I first reported on China in the late 1990s as a Beijing-based correspondent for Reuters, writing extensively about the socialist country’s rapid transition to market economy. The big question at that time was whether a developing country burdened by state-owned behemoths could shed its heavy industry and re-tool millions of laid-off workers to produce consumer gadgets in nimbler setups. China answered without sentiment, and pulled off an economic miracle.

This year, faced with slowing exports, Communist leaders are pushing ahead with a gigantic, historic plan to move 100 million rural residents into towns and cities over the next 6 years to boost domestic demand in infrastructure and goods.

China’s rural diaspora began decades ago, as millions left their villages for factory work in cities. But now the government, not the economy, dictates this new period of resettlement. As apartment blocks are erected on farmland, villagers turn – willingly or not – into local urbanites. Some pop-up cities are already under construction, and others are little more than blueprints. Bureaucrats expect China’s urban population to top one billion by 2030.

These numbers are almost unfathomable. But through the individual farmers swept up by these abrupt changes, I aim to photograph an economic phenomenon that is shaping the world’s future super power.

Despite 35 years of economic reforms, this is not a change the Chinese people endure quietly. Already, land disputes rising from urbanisation account for tens of thousands of protests each year, including dozens of cases in which people have set themselves aflame or jump out of their balconies rather than leave their homes.

But even the farmers have mixed feelings. After taking pictures of Mr Li scouring the wasteland, I approached him to try to understand his grievance. To my surprise, he grinned. “One of those apartments behind will be mine,” he explained.

As a Chinese living abroad, I look at this issue with the perspective of both a compassionate citizen and a questioning outsider. As I crisscross the country talking with farmers to get closer to a reasonable truth, I feel the weight of the macroeconomic rationale behind this policy, as well as the catastrophic consequence should it be wrong. The story is not just about whether the farmers are forced to relocate, but how they as individuals and China as a country manage this dramatic transformation. What happens to humanity and the earth when one hundred million subsistence farmers clamor to join the consumptive middle class in one short decade?

Skeptics point to the disastrous “Great Leap Forward,” a campaign by Mao Zedong to modernize China overnight that ended with tens of millions dead and decades of economic regression. In other parts of the world such as Brazil and Mexico, farmers forced from their land face scarce opportunity.

History, migration, and social changes in Russia and China are the core of my work. I embarked on this project after shooting Zone of Absolute Discomfort in the Russian Arctic. There, I documented a landscape plundered by successive generations of Russian leaders, from Stalin to Putin. The government collectivised Arctic nomads and sent both volunteers and political prisoners to industrialise the icy desert. I want to show how policies affect both humans and the planet, whether under the command of a Russian dictator or a Chinese Politburo.