China’s Great Uprooting: Moving 250 Million Into Cities

China is pushing ahead with a sweeping plan to move 250 million
rural residents into newly constructed towns and cities over the next dozen
years — a transformative event that could set off a new wave of growth or
saddle the country with problems for generations to come.

The government, often by fiat, is replacing
small rural homes with high-rises, paving over vast swaths of farmland and
drastically altering the lives of rural dwellers. So large is the scale that
the number of brand-new Chinese city dwellers will approach the total urban
population of the United States — in a country already bursting with

This will decisively change the character of China, where the Communist
Party insisted for decades that most peasants, even those working in cities,
remain tied to their tiny plots of land to ensure political and economic
stability. Now, the party has shifted priorities, mainly to find a new source
of growth for a slowing economy that depends increasingly on a consuming class of
city dwellers.

The shift is occurring so quickly, and the potential
costs are so high, that some fear rural China is once again the site of radical
social engineering. Over the past decades, the Communist Party has flip-flopped
on peasants’ rights to use land: giving small plots to farm during 1950s land
reform, collectivizing a few years later, restoring rights at the start of the
reform era and now trying to obliterate small landholders.

walked to school from a housing project in Chongqing, where their families were
resettled after leaving their farmland.

Across China, bulldozers are leveling villages that
date to long-ago dynasties. Towers now sprout skyward from dusty plains and
verdant hillsides. New urban schools and hospitals offer modern services, but
often at the expense of the torn-down temples and open-air theaters of the

“It’s a new world for us in the city,” said Tian Wei,
43, a former wheat farmer in the northern province of Hebei, who now works as a
night watchman at a factory. “All my life I’ve worked with my hands in the
fields; do I have the educational level to keep up with the city people?”

China has long been home to both some of the world’s
tiniest villages and its most congested, polluted examples of urban sprawl. The
ultimate goal of the government’s modernization plan is to fully integrate 70
percent of the country’s population, or roughly 900 million people, into city
living by 2025. Currently, only half that number are.

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