Nine years ago, after decades of living in a mud house, Xiao Yang’s family scraped together enough money to build a modern two-storey home in a rural village in Shandong province.
The house, which was painstakingly decorated and finally paid off by the mother-of-three last year, was the family’s chance at “a better life”.
But earlier this month, the home she had worked so hard for was razed to the ground and she was forcefully relocated by local authorities in a controversial “village consolidation” campaign.
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“It’s heartbreaking,” Yang said. “We had no way to save our home – all we can do is cry.”
Land grabbing by local governments through coercion, unfair deals or even violence is not new in China, as authorities rely on revenues from land sales to finance pet projects or to cover operating expenses.
The province of Shandong began “consolidating” villages a decade ago by removing peasants from traditional rural houses and shifting them into matchbox residential buildings, a process known as “forcing farmers to live upstairs”.
But Shandong’s consolidation campaign has captured nationwide attention in recent months because it has been enacted on such a massive scale.
The province had about 69,500 villages in June, according to Li Hu, director for the Shandong natural resources department. That marked a significant fall from March 2019, when Zhang Xinwen, the then-provincial economic planning commission chief, said the province had some 74,000 villages.
Furthermore, the provincial government is intent on slashing that number further. Zhang said the ideal number of villages in Shandong should be “around 50,000”, implying more than 20,000 more will be destroyed.
Given the average population per village is 560, that could result in a staggering 11 million people evicted from their traditional homes.
In comparison, China’s controversial Three Gorges Dam project on the Yangtze River displaced about 1.3 million people.
In China, where there is no private land ownership, it is easy for local authorities to seize land from residents even though they may have lived there for generations.
At the same time, under China’s rigid and centralised land management system, local governments are bound by annual land conversion quotas. By demolishing villages that include courtyards and cottages and forcing farmers into flats, authorities can claim that they “saved” land in the process, giving them more to sell.
This is particularly tempting for cash-strapped local governments, who have in recent months ploughed ahead with land seizures to fill revenue shortages caused by Beijing-mandated tax cuts and an economic downturn from the coronavirus pandemic.
In Shandong, rural residents have taken to social media to accuse local authorities of brutally forcing people out of their homes, failing to pay adequate compensation and leaving them to live in makeshift shelters because they cannot afford rent on another house.
In some counties, authorities have torn down homes before even breaking ground on the “new rural community flats” they had promised to residents. The land is usually sold to manufacturers, but occasionally it is flogged off to property developers.
For those unwilling to move, demolition teams have set off firecrackers and cut off water and electricity to force them out, according to social media posts and interviews with villagers.
While most analysts say the overall aim of the national urbanisation policy is sound, implementation at the local level has been suspect.
In addition to the top-down pressure, an incentive for a local government to push radical urbanisation is that they can have more available land, so that they can build properties or industrial estates to cover a fiscal deficit
“The policy was undertaken with good intentions, but some local governments have twisted the idea of urbanisation during the process,” said Lu Ming, a prominent professor of urbanisation at Shanghai Jiao Tong University. “As a result, it became a top-down and one-size-fits-all campaign in some provinces, leading to a wilful neglect of the rules of the economy.
“In addition to the top-down pressure, an incentive for a local government to push radical urbanisation is that they can have more available land, so that they can build properties or industrial estates to cover a fiscal deficit,” Lu said.
Wen Tiejun, a professor at Renmin University of China, said at a webinar in late May that village consolidation schemes were designed by local governments to abuse China’s land management system, with the ultimate purpose of “selling more land”.
China has undergone the world’s broadest and fastest urbanisation in recent decades. By the end of 2019, more than 60 per cent of the Chinese population lived in towns and cities, a rise from 30 per cent two decades ago, official data showed.
After the consolidation policy was first rolled out in Shandong’s Dezhou city in 2008, it was soon expanded to other provinces including Hebei, Sichuan, Chongqing, Jiangsu and Zhejiang, although few have been as ruthless as Shandong.
Some experts have praised the plan, pointing out many rural villages in China have been facing a mass exodus for years, as men in particular migrate to cities in search of better wages, leaving women, children and the elderly behind. At the same time, many new urban residents, who live and work in cities, have held onto their farmland or cottages, despite not using it.
Not all rural residents disapprove of the relocation policy, either. Zhao Qian, who lived in a village outside Dezhou city until it was torn down in March 2017, said she and most of her former neighbours were happy to move.
“We didn’t want to live in the village any longer, as life was so inconvenient,” she said. “We received the demolition notice in mid-March and within two weeks almost all villagers had moved out.”
Zhao’s family gave up their farmland, which they had stopped farming years ago, and her relatives now work in factories in the city.
“If you move late, you get less compensation [from the government],” she said, adding she was in a new flat and “happy about the compensation”.
A few older residents were unwilling to go because of their bond with the village, but in the end they had no choice after local authorities cut electricity and water supply, Zhao said.
According to Lu, future urbanisation should be gradual, take into account regional differences and start with rural Chinese already working in big cities.
“Rural residents who live on the outskirts of big cities want to become urban residents because there is no need for them to rely on farming – most already working in cities,” he said.
“Having these people live in flats would free up some land for local governments to sell, which would be a win-win situation.”
But in areas where incomes are primarily earned from farming, residents will not easily give up their land even with compensation, as it may not be enough for a new flat, he said.
That was the case in Yang’s village, Yangxin, where many locals still made a living working the fields. The compensation her family received was less than 1,000 yuan (US$141) per square metre, while the average price for a flat in her town was about five times that.
Amid mounting public pressure, Shandong authorities vowed late last month they “would never force farmers to move” and were committed to “listening to the people”.
Every villager was left in tears, it was our home. For most of us, you have to move, because the later you move, the less compensation you get. What else could we do?
But for Yang, what is done is done. Even if the government puts an immediate end to the campaign, her house has already been torn down.
“Every villager was left in tears, it was our home. For most of us, you have to move, because the later you move, the less compensation you get. What else could we do?” she said.
“For old people without children, how will they be able to pay the electricity and property management bills? What will happen to the flocks and herds that they raised? Where should they put their farm tools?” said Yang.
The Yangxin government news office declined to comment when reached by the South China Morning Post, saying “we cannot offer you any details about the campaign.”
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