March 01, 2006

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Model Chinese villages

Josephine Ma in the SCMP looks at the downside of the new socialist countryside fairy tale, by taking at a look the new model villages being built.

It is an unusual combination: piles of dry wood and maize leaves stacked behind rows of two-storey villas in a clean concrete compound, surrounded by muddy traditional villages. New Liangzhui village and the lookalike Xujia village 2km away look like any other luxury Beijing property development - except for the stockpiled fuel that betrays the residents' dilemma.

As the campaign to build a "new socialist countryside" - a main theme of this year's National People's Congress and the Work Report of Premier Wen Jiabao - sweeps the country, New Liangzhui, the 2002 brainchild of property tycoon Liang Xisen, is widely hailed by the media as a sample of what a modern village could be. It could be likened to a 21st-century version of Dazhai village, the model village that symbolised modernisation and wealth for farmers in the "new socialist countryside" campaign of the 1950s. But this time it owes its existence to capitalism rather than communism.

Mr Liang, who developed Beijing's exclusive Rose Garden estate, spent 42 million yuan converting his home village in the poorest part of Shandong into his vision of a modern village. When the project was completed in 2002, each family was allocated a 280 square metre villa, while younger villagers were given smaller flats in four-storey buildings. In return, villagers handed their farmland to Mr Liang to build a 23-hectare beef feedlot and abattoir. Most of Liangzhui's 400 villagers are hired by the beef operation, earning a stable monthly salary of 600 yuan. They were also given shares in the farm and are eligible for bonuses.

Nevertheless, life in the model village is not as carefree as it appears. Although almost every family has an electric stove, many still burn firewood and maize leaves for cooking, to minimise electricity bills. Li Yulan said although her two children were each allotted a flat and she received a villa, meeting the bills was difficult.

The problem is even more acute in Xujia village, a second attempt by Mr Liang to covert a traditional village into rows of villas, completed late last year. Sitting outside her new villa, 48-year-old Zhang Delan kills time stripping the cotton she harvested last year. "This is the last time we will do such work as we have no land anymore. This is last year's harvest," she said. Xujia villagers also handed over their farmland, with Mr Liang telling the media he planned to introduce mechanised farming, run by a co-operative. "I think they will give us a job, otherwise what can we do? We have no land anymore," Ms Zhang said.

Mr Liang, a farmer with just one year's schooling who became a billionaire after buying out the bankrupt Rose Garden project, has said he plans to convert 109 villages in the town of Huangjia along the same lines. To provide jobs for the landless farmers, he planned to expand his beef business and set up more factories. But Xujia villagers have doubts: the beef business and the modernisation of Liangzhui village cost Mr Liang 400 million yuan, although they can barely hide their pride when they show off the new homes.

Taizhang village lies just next to Xujia, its winding mud paths lined with brick houses. Mr Liang originally chose Taizhang for his second experiment, but the plan soured over a trivial argument with villagers about the thickness of the wall enclosing the village. Taizhang villager Zhang Jun , 60, said he would not mind moving to a villa, although he was also content with his two-storey farmhouse. He used to work in Tianjin , a three-hour drive away, as a migrant worker and managed to save 400,000 yuan to build a house of his own. Mr Zhang said all young villagers were now working in cities and life was better since the agricultural tax was scrapped last year.

Chen Xiwen, a top rural policymaker with the central government, recently said the latest campaign to build a new socialist countryside was not about demolishing old villages, but more concerned with setting aside public funding for infrastructure, education and healthcare services. "I saw in some places they built tall buildings of 10 or 20 storeys and it is so inconvenient for farmers to carry sickles and pickaxes with them into the lifts," Mr Chen said. But despite repeated warnings, local governments had scrambled to spruce up villages and select model villages as "new socialist" showcases, analysts said.

Without billionaire backers, other villages have to foot the bill through public finances or by raising funds from farmers.

My emphasis both times. Despite the negative spin, it would seem that Liang's efforts are the best way to go - a market solution to the problem of poverty. Smaller plots are accumulated into viable commercial farmland, agribusiness improves the wages and conditions of villagers and so on in a virtuous cycle. A perfectly capitalist solution for the new socialist countryside.

posted by Simon on 03.01.06 at 09:28 AM in the China category.


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Ahem - enclosure, anyone?

posted by: Argleblaster on 03.01.06 at 03:52 PM [permalink]

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