A colleague of mine once told me of a TV program showing the loss of the Chinese countryside to urban development. “I don’t get it,” he shook his head, “it was so beautiful out there. Why would they try to destroy it to build towns?” Such feedback was natural from an American, but it would ring hollow to the ears of many Chinese. The word “countryside” (“nongcun”) is so negatively value laden that few people, except nostalgic, old-fashioned, and country-born intellectuals like me, see anything positive in it. Anyone leaving a city education or job behind to return to the countryside will make national news. A one-way street leads from rural China to urban China. Countryside is something to get out of, often at all cost.
It is difficult to get city folks to appreciate what is good about the countryside. Those of us growing up in the countryside, however, can form a secret club sharing nostalgia for an idyllic, rural past. Those days when we run carefree in the clover fields and mountains filled with rhododendron bushes and pine needles! Those nights when we gaze into a crystal clear starry night, lying on a bamboo bed out in the crop-drying field, wrapped in the aroma of mosquito-repelling wormwood. Those “dropping the handkerchief” games we played. Those fishes we caught in the running creeks. Is it love of the country, or is it just me fearing that my better years are drifting away? I do not know, but every time I travel, I listen to the Country Feelings CD
recorded by my good friend Jeff Garrett from Huntington WV. He sang of honeysuckle bushes and creeks, railroads and rainbows, trout fishing, and barefoot running. Who’d think that these lyrics in a different language would bring tears and smiles to a man reminiscent of a past that is no more and a home far away?
Whenever I hear of the word “urbanization” there is a churned-up feeling in my stomach. Wrapped in this word is the assumption is that rural is bad and urban is good. Government officials are of course to blame for pursing GDP growth at the cost of almost everything else, hence this urbanization farce. Likewise, many people I encountered, as if brainwashed, think in pretty much the same way: that for the countryside to become a better place, it has to turn into an urban area. Such group folly opens the Pandora’s box of social troubles: farmers turned irrevocably into migrant workers, children left behind to be raised by grandparents, and crowded, suffocating railway trains when natives return for spring festivals. There should be ways to develop local economies to keep some good jobs away from Beijing, Shanghai, or Guangzhou, but priorities are often set in a way to allocate more resources and attention to bigger cities. Size does matter in this regard. In this context, you see middle cities try to copy ways of bigger cities, small cities copy middle cities, and villages are slated to be urbanized into towns. Nobody is doing anything to promote country pride or town pride as people in the United States sometimes do through farmers’ markets, rural festivals, and state fairs.
Truth be told, there is little pride left. For years, China has been sacrificing economic and social interests of its vast number of farmers to industrialize the country. Farmers have a separate identity known as the “rural resident” (Nong ye hu kou), which give them numerous restrictions in getting educational, healthcare or any other benefits. The socioeconomic disparity, continued over time, is assumed to be the way things were, the way things are, and the way things will be far into the future. In such distorted development, cities become increasingly like Europe and villages become like Africa. China thus becomes a tale of two continents. People from the countryside are basically reduced to second-class citizens in their own country. They are often publicly humiliated for who they are and where they come from. People on buses try to avoid staying close to dirty migrant workers. The word “farmer” (you are so farmer!) is used as an adjective, a curse word to refer to anyone who is backward and uneducated. The discrimination can follow one from buses to bedrooms: the rural/urban divide can cause tension in domestic lives when one spouse is from the countryside and another is from the city.
An abstract sense of equality, however, isn’t the most pressing issue. In the name of urbanization, great social injustices are unfolding as I am writing. Many local governments, instead of finding ways to develop local economies for sustainable development, rely on selling land and developing real estate for quick cash. Farmland becomes easy targets in such development. This is often done in roundabout, though merciless ways, for instance, taking children’s education into hostage. When I called home, I heard that many elementary schools in my hometown were closed and students “merged” into town schools. Ostensibly, this is done to maximize the use of resources as enrollments drop in some rural schools. According to Mr. Changping Li, a notable advocate for rural development, closing rural school is a way to get parents to buy apartments in towns, and thereby creating the need for more real estate development. Schools usually do not provide school buses. If a parent does not want their child to walk ten or fifteen miles one-way to school, guess who is going to suffer? The natural choice for parents is to move to the local town, away from their farms and livelihood. Educational resource utilization, according to Li, is just a smoke screen for the greed of officials and real estate developers. If farmers cannot afford apartments, that’s their problem for not being richer. Just recently, several districts in Beijing closed around 30 schools for migrant workers’ children, schools that are allegedly without “proper licenses.” These displaced students, however, cannot go to local schools without “proper papers”. So these kids cannot go to schools where their parents work, and they cannot go to schools where their homes are. Why isn’t anybody paying attention to the problems this could breed in the future?
If rural development is an authentic goal, a lot more should be done to preserve the environment, develop the economy and provide a safety network in rural areas. Little is done to reduce real problems facing rural development. Pollution, for instance, is emerging as a huge problem in the countryside. As citizens in cities start to have their own voice and boycott polluting chemical plants in their neighborhood, some such plants move to the countryside.
Additionally, garbage collection in rural areas has never appeared on anyone’s agenda. Garbage, including heavy pollutants like batteries, stay in the environment, around people and often end up in them. The beautiful country that I used to know is becoming a gigantic dumpster. When I was a child, cancer is very rare. Now, folks in the countryside die of all sorts of strange diseases due to the deteriorating environment. Instead of fighting the problems, urbanization, or at least the way it is being done, is a flight from the real problems facing countryside livelihood. The time has come for policy-makers to look hard for ways to develop countryside into better countryside, instead of turning villages into copycat towns to create a new class of desperate poor.