A New Great Leap Forward

Since 2008, the Chinese government has undertaken the impossible task of doing in a few years what took Western countries centuries. Its goal is to move 250 million people from farms to cities, in the belief that urbanization will inevitably lead to economic growth.

Scavengers picked through the remains of Wang Lianmin’s house, razed to make way for Olympics-related construction. Jill Drew for The Washington Post.

In preparation for the Olympic Games in August 2008 and the Shanghai World Expo in 2010, China was more than ready to rush the process by convincing farmers to leave their homes and lands for new apartments. Was the prospect of an economy based on a consumer society more important than the well-being of a population? China’s government seemed to have an affirmative answer to that question, as it was ready to use last resort incentives, like cutting water supplies and destroying schools, to convince farmers to move into town. But China should put aside its dreams of economic growth and concentrate itself on the welfare of its population. Putting economic dreams before the people has been tried before, and few can speak of it as a success.

Yanjiao, Hebei Province, is part of the planned megalopolis Jing-Jin-Ji. A new road is being built here on what was recently farmland. Sim Chi Yin for the New York Times.

Huanming is one of the multiple new cities than were built as models to show the world how China was moving from a nation of farmlands to a nation of cities, but the dream ended in nightmares for some new residents. Some might argue that living in the city comes with advantages: local governments gave farmers compensation for their lands and houses. But as The New York Times reported in 2013, the government’s compensation covered only a quarter of the price of an actual apartment. Moreover, cities like Huanming had a Potemkin air about them: behind the seemingly good-looking buildings, only cracked walls and empty radiators awaited the new townsfolks.

Cold beds and misty windows were not the only bad surprises that welcomed farmers in the cities. Many of them expressed the concern that they were not qualified for office jobs, having worked the land all their lives. “We know how to farm, but not how to work in an office,” said Wei Dushen, a farmer from Guanzhuang Village now living in Huanming. “Those are for educated people.” No income, no job, unhealthy living conditions and huge disappointment piled up for many of them, and some saw suicide as a way of putting an end to their miseries.

Ex-farmers looking for work in Chongqing are sleeping on the street. Justin Jin for The New York Times.

China’s attempts to boost its economy have came at the price of its people’s well-being and livelihood. The economic advantages of such practices don’t outweigh the social costs; the Chinese government should think about all of their people before pushing out big new ideas.