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Chinese villagers move in from the country

Monday - 11/11/2013, 5:52am  ET

In this Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013 photo, Chinese women stand in front of furniture on sale on a square near new housing blocks for rural citizens, in Qiyan in China's Shaanxi province. Originally started as a disaster resettlement in 2010, Qiyan Community has since been swept into China’s massive push to move millions of country folk into more urban settings to improve access to services and to shift away from a factory-based economy. But for most families, there is no work in Qiyan, meaning that most of the region’s working-age people must still travel elsewhere for jobs. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

Associated Press

QIYAN COMMUNITY, China (AP) -- After her husband started making good money as an electrician here in central China, Cao Qin ended years of working as a migrant laborer hundreds of kilometers (miles) away and came back home to better care for their school-age boy.

But Cao, 30, didn't return to the family's rugged adobe home in the hills. Instead, they all moved into a new third-floor apartment in this planned community of Qiyan that has been going up in a valley in southern Shaanxi province over the past couple of years as a new home for villagers scattered throughout nearby mountains.

Shops, markets, health clinics, the boy's school and government offices are all within walking distance or a short motorcycle ride -- a stark contrast from before for Cao.

"It always felt far away. I think it took me two hours on foot to come to the nearest town," said Cao, one of the newest residents among the neat rows of white-and-gray townhomes and apartment blocks of Qiyan Community. "We are very satisfied."

Originally started as a disaster resettlement in 2010, the newly minted community has since been swept into China's massive push to move millions of country folk into more urban settings to improve access to services and to shift from a factory-based economy to a consumer-driven, service-oriented one.

But there is one big problem: For most families there is no work here, meaning that most of the region's working-age people, as before, travel elsewhere for jobs. Some families are still holding out in the mountains because they can't afford the new apartments and don't have enough flexibility in how to use -- let alone sell -- the land they would leave behind.

China has no private land ownership, and rural lands are owned by village collectives. Mountain villager Huang Tianbing is locked into a farm collective deal arranged by local officials that involves subleasing his land for a tea tree business and caring after the trees. He said he only makes about $350 a year from the arrangement.

"We can hardly make a living and have no means to move out," Huang said, sitting near the door to his adobe home up on a hill, a vegetable garden behind him.

Scholars argue that successful urbanization requires a reform of China's rural collectives and land laws to give farmers like Huang more opportunities for success.

China's Communist Party leaders huddled in a high-level plenum in Beijing are expected to discuss these kinds of reform during consultations through Tuesday, with more comprehensive plans to be rolled out by year's end.

Beijing sees urbanization as China's next biggest engine for economic growth, with plans to turn 300 million rural folks into urban dwellers by 2030 -- equivalent to relocating nearly the entire population of the United States.

"Imagine their demands as they become urbanized. That's unprecedented in human history," said Hu Angang, a professor at the School of Public Policy & Management at Tsinghua University. "We are turning urbanization from the biggest potential for consumption into the biggest drive for consumption."

China's urbanization first picked up pace with market reforms in the early 1980s. By 2011, half the country's population had moved into cities, but a rigid, decades-old household registration system that assigns either urban or rural status under the old planned economy created a new class of second-class people: rural laborers working in cities.

A recent study by Tsinghua University shows that only 27.6 percent of the country's people have urban status with full claims to public urban services, while hundreds of millions of city dwellers with the rural status have limited education, health and pension benefits.

China's second wave of relocation must be more equitable to avoid the kind of social instability that the country's leaders loathe, and Premier Li Keqiang has vowed a "new type" of urbanization, with plans to close the gap between rural and urban residents.

"The key this time is to integrate the countryside with cities and to equalize basic public services," said Hu of Tsinghua University.

Scholars warn that, if ill-managed, the rapid transformation could be China's next Great Leap Forward -- the 1958-61 period when an overzealous industrialization campaign squandered resources, collectivized farming, destroyed the environment and ended in famine.

The efforts so far have been uneven. Land grabs by local officials have sparked violent conflicts with rural residents, and huge "ghost city" neighborhoods have been built with few residents moving in so far. Scholars also fret that the rapid urbanization could exacerbate already bad air and water pollution and severely strain local governments tasked with providing public services.

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