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

Most families got 29.9m2 per member. That is 2m2 more than the average per capita living space in Tianjin, but most of the new units were just 74.3m2, so a typical family of three would not get their full allotment. In theory, they could use the remaining allotment and spend their own money to purchase another unit, but most ended up with less floor space than they had on the farm.

In interviews, those most happy about the new plan had nonfarming jobs and saw this as a way to get a modern apartment.

“It’s survival of the fittest,” said Yang Huashuai, a 25-year-old electrician and cabdriver who said his family got three apartments.

“If you don’t work hard, you don’t deserve to make it,” he said.

However, many others did not want to leave their land. The local government used intense pressure to force farmers out of their villages. It tore up roads and cut electricity and water. Even so, thousands stayed on. As a final measure, the schoolhouses — one in each village — were demolished. With no utilities and no way to educate their children, most farmers capitulated and moved to town.

Besides dissatisfaction over the amount of space they would receive, farmers were most concerned about jobs.

Huaming is adjacent to Tianjin’s massive airport logistics center, which is expanding and adding thousands of jobs.

However, many farmers said that they were not qualified for these jobs.

“We know how to farm, but not how to work in an office,” said Wei Dushen, a former resident of Guanzhuang Village now living in town. “Those are for educated people.”

Huaming residents say the only jobs open to them are in dead-end menial positions, such as street sweepers or low-level security guards. These jobs pay the equivalent of US$150 a month.

Even so, competition for them is fierce.

Retraining was supposed to have allowed villagers a chance to get skills to compete.

According to official literature, US$1,500 was allotted for each resident. However, it was impossible to find any who had received retraining or had heard of anyone who had.

Many young people seem to have given up trying to find work. Internet cafes are packed with them playing games. Although the cafes are supposed to be limited to the commercial streets, they are found in converted apartments in many housing blocks.

In one, 28-year-old Zhang Wei said he had invested US$4,300 to renovate an apartment and install computers. The unit’s former living room was packed with young people hunched over screens, many of them playing games like World of Warcraft for money.

“They’re all unemployed local people, but without qualifications, what can they do?” Zhang said.

For many, the disappointment leads to suicides.

Recently, residents said, a 19-year-old man ill with cancer flung himself off the family’s third-floor balcony at 5:30am and landed on the parking lot next to two vans serving breakfast.

His father dead and his mother living on welfare, the family was too poor to afford further cancer treatment. The story could not be verified with the authorities, but was repeated independently by residents.

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