Thu, Nov 14, 2013 - Page 9 News List

New China cities: shoddy homes, broken hopes

As the government pushes ahead with urbanization, China’s cities are showing the telltale signs of social dysfunction

By Ian Johnson  /  NY Times News Service, HUAMING, China

Illustration: Mountain People

Three years ago, the Shanghai World Expo featured this newly built town as a model for how China would move from being a land of farms to a land of cities. In a dazzling pavilion visited by more than 1 million people, visitors learned how farmers were being given a new life through a fair-and-square deal that did not cost them anything.

Today, Huaming may be an example of another transformation: the ghettoization of China’s new towns.

Signs of social dysfunction abound. Young people, who while away their days in Internet cafes or pool halls, say only a small fraction of them have jobs. The elderly are forced to take menial work to make ends meet. Neighborhood and family structures have been damaged.

Most worrying are the suicides, which local residents say have become an all-too-familiar sign of despair.

As China pushes ahead with government-led urbanization, a program expected to be endorsed at a Chinese Communist Party Central Committee meeting that began on Saturday, many worry that the scores of new housing developments here may face the same plight as postwar housing projects in Western countries. Meant to solve one problem, they may be creating a new set of troubles that could plague Chinese cities for generations.

“We’re talking hundreds of millions of people who are moving into these places, but the standard of living for these relocatees has actually dropped,” said Lynette Ong, a University of Toronto political scientist who has studied the resettlement areas. “On top of that is the quality of the buildings ?— there was a lot of corruption, and they skimped on materials.”

Huaming has no gangs, drug use or street violence. Nearly half the town is given over to green space. Trees line the streets that lead to elementary, middle and high schools.

Yet the new homes have cracked walls, leaking windows and elevators with rusted out floors. For farmers who were asked to surrender their ancestral lands for an apartment, the deterioration adds to a sense of having been cheated.

“That was their land,” said Wei Ying, a 35-year-old unemployed woman whose parents live in a poorly built unit. “You have to understand how they feel in their heart.”

The sense of despair and alienation surfaces in the suicides, a late-night leap from a balcony, drinking of pesticide or lying down on railroad tracks.

“I have anxiety attacks because we have no income, no job, nothing,” said Feng Aiju, 40, a former farmer who moved to Huaming in 2008 against her will.

She said she had spent a small fortune by local standards, US$1,500, on antidepressants.

“We never had a chance to speak; we were never asked anything. I want to go home,” she said.

In 2005, Huaming Township was chosen to be a demonstration for successful, planned urbanization. Huaming — on the outskirts of one of China’s largest cities, Tianjin — had 41,000 people living in 12 small villages dotted across 155km2, most of which was farmland.

The idea was to consolidate the villages into one new town called Huaming that would take up less than 2.6km2, versus the 7.8km2 that the dozen villages had occupied. A portion of the remaining 152.4km2 could be sold to developers to pay for construction costs, meaning the new buildings would cost farmers and the government nothing.

The rest of the land would stay agricultural, but worked by a few remaining farmers using modern methods. This would achieve another aim: Not reducing the amount of arable land — a crucial goal for a country with a huge population and historic worries about being able to feed itself.

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