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Children played between neat rows of two-story houses in the new town of Qiyan, China. The former village has been transformed into a showpiece town in China’s urbanization project, but few jobs are nearby.

Photos by Sim Chi Yin • New York Times,

Lu Minqin said she cannot afford the electricity to use the television in her apartment in the new town of Qiyan, China.

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China faces rocky transition from farm to town

  • Article by: IAN JOHNSON
  • New York Times
  • July 13, 2013 - 6:48 PM

– Li Yongping sat in a darkened conference room, his face illuminated by an enormous map of southern Shaanxi province projected on a wall-size screen. He nodded to an assistant and the screen split: the province on one side and a photograph of a farmer on the other.

“These people are moving out of here,” he said, gesturing to the mountains that dominate the province’s south. “And they’re moving here,” he said, pointing to the farmer’s newly built concrete home. “They are moving into the modern world.”

Li is directing one of the largest peacetime population transfers in history: the removal of 2.4 million farmers from mountain areas in the central Chinese province of Shaanxi to low-lying towns, many built from scratch on other farmers’ land. The total cost is estimated at $200 billion over 10 years.

It is one of the most drastic displays of a concerted government effort to end the dominance of rural life, which for millenniums has been the keystone of Chinese society and politics.

Highest reaches

While farmers have been moving to cities for decades, the government now says the rate is too slow. An urbanization blueprint that is due to be unveiled this year would have 21 million people a year move into cities. As is often the case in China, however, formal plans only codify what is already happening.

All told, 250 million more Chinese may live in cities in the next dozen years. The rush to urbanize comes despite concerns that many rural residents are not ready for the move, lacking the skills to find jobs in the city or simply unwilling to leave behind a way of life that many cherish.

The push has the support of the highest reaches of the government, with the new prime minister, Li Keqiang, a strong proponent of accelerated urbanization. The campaign to depopulate the countryside is seen as the best way to maintain China’s spectacular run of fast economic growth, with new city dwellers driving demand for decades to come.

During a visit in February, townspeople in Qiyan, previously a village of 200 households, sat in their front yards, huddled around open fires. Their homes were brand-new, with indoor heating and modern appliances, but it all runs on an unaffordable luxury: electricity.

A high cost for an apartment

“Back when we lived in the mountains we had monthly electric bills of 10 yuan,” or renminbi [about $1.60], said Lin Jiaqing, a farmer who moved to Qiyan two years ago. “But one month we had to pay 670 yuan” — about $110 — “so from now on we don’t heat or even use the washing machine.”

The apartments cost about $19,000. A government subsidy covers about a quarter of that, and the government credit cooperative provides an interest-free loan for another quarter. That still means families must come up with what for them is a staggering $10,000 to buy an apartment and then $5,000 more within three years to pay back the government loan. And that is just for a concrete shell. “Our daughter was doing well at high school, but when we had to buy this apartment, she knew we couldn’t afford to send her to college,” said Lin’s wife, He Shifang.

Underlying the project seems to be a distaste among city dwellers for rural life. During the Cultural Revolution, Li lost his chance at a college education because Mao Zedong closed schools and sent young people to work in the countryside. Li said the time 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?” Li said of the farmers and their old adobe homes in the mountains. “… Put simply, we want to teach ordinary Chinese people to bid farewell to several backward ways of living.”

© 2014 Star Tribune