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

Thu, Nov 14, 2013 - Page 9

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.

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.

More common are stories of old people who cannot get used to the new lives and quickly die of illnesses. One term that residents repeatedly use is biesi — “stifled to death” in the new towers.

Some residents wonder why they went through these travails when so little development is visible. Outside the town, one is confronted by kilometer after kilometer of empty lots — once farmland, now lying fallow, sometimes blocked from view by endless sheet-metal fences painted with propaganda about prosperity and development.

“Look at the empty fields,” former Guanzhuang Village resident Wei Naiju said. “That’s good earth; you could really plant something on it.”

In the town, the life that once existed has now been memorialized in a museum. It is rarely open to the public, but its front door was ajar one day in summer last year.

Filled with full-scale dioramas of village homes and human figures, it was a re-creation of the old village life, accurate down to the dried corn hanging from the eaves. An introductory plaque explained: “Time goes by and things change.”