Farmers move from mountains to townhomes in China urbanization drive, but where are the jobs?

QIYAN COMMUNITY, China – After her husband started making good money as an electrician here in central China, Cao Qin ended years of working as a migrant labourer hundreds of kilometres (miles) away and came back home to better care for their school-age boy.

But Cao, 30, didn’t return to the family’s rugged adobe home in the hills. Instead, they all moved into a new third-floor apartment in this planned community of Qiyan that has been going up in a valley in southern Shaanxi province over the past couple of years as a new home for villagers scattered throughout nearby mountains.

Shops, markets, health clinics, the boy’s school and government offices are all within walking distance or a short motorcycle ride — a stark contrast from before for Cao.

“It always felt far away. I think it took me two hours on foot to come to the nearest town,” said Cao, one of the newest residents among the neat rows of white-and-grey townhomes and apartment blocks of Qiyan Community. “We are very satisfied.”

Originally started as a disaster resettlement in 2010, the newly minted community has since been swept into China’s massive push to move millions of country folk into more urban settings to improve access to services and to shift from a factory-based economy to a consumer-driven, service-oriented one.

But there is one big problem: For most families there is no work here, meaning that most of the region’s working-age people, as before, travel elsewhere for jobs. Some families are still holding out in the mountains because they can’t afford the new apartments and don’t have enough flexibility in how to use — let alone sell — the land they would leave behind.

China has no private land ownership, and rural lands are owned by village collectives. Mountain villager Huang Tianbing is locked into a farm collective deal arranged by local officials that involves subleasing his land for a tea tree business and caring after the trees. He said he only makes about $350 a year from the arrangement.

“We can hardly make a living and have no means to move out,” Huang said, sitting near the door to his adobe home up on a hill, a vegetable garden behind him.

Scholars argue that successful urbanization requires a reform of China’s rural collectives and land laws to give farmers like Huang more opportunities for success.

China’s Communist Party leaders huddled in a high-level plenum in Beijing are expected to discuss these kinds of reform during consultations through Tuesday, with more comprehensive plans to be rolled out by year’s end.

Beijing sees urbanization as China’s next biggest engine for economic growth, with plans to turn 300 million rural folks into urban dwellers by 2030 — equivalent to relocating nearly the entire population of the United States.

“Imagine their demands as they become urbanized. That’s unprecedented in human history,” said Hu Angang, a professor at the School of Public Policy & Management at Tsinghua University. “We are turning urbanization from the biggest potential for consumption into the biggest drive for consumption.”

China’s urbanization first picked up pace with market reforms in the early 1980s. By 2011, half the country’s population had moved into cities, but a rigid, decades-old household registration system that assigns either urban or rural status under the old planned economy created a new class of second-class people: rural labourers working in cities.

A recent study by Tsinghua University shows that only 27.6 per cent of the country’s people have urban status with full claims to public urban services, while hundreds of millions of city dwellers with the rural status have limited education, health and pension benefits.

China’s second wave of relocation must be more equitable to avoid the kind of social instability that the country’s leaders loathe, and Premier Li Keqiang has vowed a “new type” of urbanization, with plans to close the gap between rural and urban residents.

“The key this time is to integrate the countryside with cities and to equalize basic public services,” said Hu of Tsinghua University.

Scholars warn that, if ill-managed, the rapid transformation could be China’s next Great Leap Forward — the 1958-61 period when an overzealous industrialization campaign squandered resources, collectivized farming, destroyed the environment and ended in famine.

The efforts so far have been uneven. Land grabs by local officials have sparked violent conflicts with rural residents, and huge “ghost city” neighbourhoods have been built with few residents moving in so far. Scholars also fret that the rapid urbanization could exacerbate already bad air and water pollution and severely strain local governments tasked with providing public services.

In Qiyan Community, government workers are busy helping about 200 new families adjust to their new lifestyle.

They’re showing the newcomers that garbage should be deposited in bags to be collected, posting notices asking the residents not to let their kids pee in public, and have been trying — with little success — to stipulate that backyards are for flower beds, not cabbage patches.

The town eventually is expected to house 6,000 residents from nearby remote villages, and so far its demographics still resemble those of the rural communities it seeks to replace: mostly old people, women and small children, and hardly any young or middle-aged men — who are all working elsewhere.

The cost of living is higher here than in the mountains, and eventually there must be a more thriving local economy for the community to be viable in the long term.

The mountainous terrain is not conducive to industrialization, but the local government is hoping for a robust tea tree industry, Qiyan Community director Huang Feng said. Other ideas include raising pigs, growing walnuts, building vegetable gardens, and attracting big city tourists to Qiyan’s mountain scenery and fresh air.

Cao, the former migrant worker, has embraced the new consumerism that the government is hoping for. She’s decked out her new pad with golden wallpaper, a dark wood floor, Nordic-style furniture and pots of flowers. A large flat-screen television hangs from a living room wall.

A few streets away, Huang Yingzhi, 61, welcomes visitors into a barely furnished apartment and places cups of tea on the bare concrete floor. The walls have become a doodling board for a granddaughter left in his and his wife’s care.

“We were once tea farmers, but now we have no work,” said Huang, who moved into Qiyan during its first phase, when it provided housing for farmers who lost homes in catastrophic mudslides with direct subsidy and no-interest loans.

“We have no one but our children to rely on,” said Huang, who has borrowed 100,000 yuan ($16,425) for the new home.

All his three sons and a daughter are away from home working as migrant workers. One of the daughters, Huang Haiyan, works in a factory in Shanghai, more than 1,125 kilometres (700 miles) away, but recently hurried home when her mother was hit by a cargo truck and was hospitalized.

“Life is definitely easier here, but there are not enough jobs to provide incomes,” she said.