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Balance urbanization with better protection of our old villages and rural manners

FOR months I have suspected that we must be experiencing a severe drought. When was the last time we had a decent rain? But when I tried to confirm my suspicions by looking it up on Baidu, no useful information was yielded.

In ancient times, when our forefathers took more seriously the hands that fed them, in a prolonged drought like this an emperor would issue a penitential decree, be contented with simple fare and accommodations, or vow redress, in an effort to appease the wrath of the heavens.

Today when our attention is drawn to rural China, it is often about its potential as a storage and supply of surplus labor. This remarkable labor force, according to some, will continue to maintain our status as the global factory.

But the rural citizens become quite invisible when they are engaged in their proper line of business, working the farm fields to grow crops.

There are exceptions. On January 9, I found three pieces of news relating to rural China in the Oriental Morning Post newspaper.

One was about the over 80 peasants who had flown to Hainan Province to collect a total of 2.88 million yuan (US$450,000) in annual bonuses from Ling Jihe, who is of peasant origin but made his fortune on building materials, mobile phones and restaurants.

In 2013 Ling rented nearly 18,000 mu (1,200 hectares) of farmland in Hainan to grow rice, using modern industrial technology and hired labor. A picture published in the paper showed a group of hired peasants (or workers) posing with piles of money.

I suspected Ling might had learned this trick from Chen Guangbiao, an extremely high-profile philanthropist whose motivation in charitable giving has long been a matter of conjecture.

“Peasants” in the news

But Ling and these “peasants” have little to do with the rural world some of us might find endearing. They reflect none of the elements reminiscent of the rural scene that I, for one, can presume a certain familiarity.

On the contrary, they are more redolent of big-time business: big money, industrialized farming practice, hired labor, and more money. It has nothing to do with villages as the last bastion of Chinese traditions and values, tacitly perceived by progressive policy makers as limiting, backwards, and obsolete.

Another report in the same paper reminded me of some of the consequences of the experiment sometimes known as the initiative to rebuild the countryside. It concerned Li Xiaojun, a village chief in Gansu Province who killed himself on December 20 by downing four bottles of pesticides.

During his four-year tenure as village chief, Li had built 10 kilometers of paved roads, erected eight six-story buildings and completed 30 units of village villas as part of the local drive to build a “beautiful countryside.”

To finance this project, Li borrowed 40 million yuan, some at usurious rates. On that fatal day when he took his life, he was confronted in his village office by debtors and a construction team including more than 10 migrant workers.

Not surprising to us, in this now rarely mentioned new countryside rejuvenation drive, in spite of the many accomplishments Li had achieved, a crucial element is missing: the cultivation of crops. It is more like an oversized real estate project.

Another piece of news in the paper had to do with Feng Jicai, a writer who in recent years had played an active role agitating for the preservation of ancient Chinese villages, with all those cultural traits associated with village life.

On the basis of his field studies, Feng recently had two books published that documented facts about those villages that have survived to this day.

Vanishing villages

According to Feng, during the decade from 2000 to 2010, some 900,000 natural villages disappeared. Gone with them are the cultural attributes, manners and mores associated with them.

The decade of breathtaking growth has left many policymakers little room for a side look. Thanks to Feng’s agitations, 10 billion yuan has been earmarked from the state for ancient village protection. That’s big money, but probably insignificant compared to the money driving rapid urbanization.

It is easy to see that only a select few ancient villages would survive the rapid urbanization, as museum pieces to gratify the curiosity of outside tourists.

As urbanization takes root, clinging to farming is the surest sign of lacking ambition in the eyes of many people — both government officials and ordinary farmers. During a recent trip to my native village home in Jiangsu Province, villagers I knew there have diversified into every conceivable kind of profession — construction workers, assembly line workers, janitors, cleaners, aquatic products farmers — anything but traditional farming.

It is true village life still holds charms for a few eccentrics.

With some romanticizing, village life can even create a stir, as for a young artist who recently retreated to Zhongnanshan in Shaanxi Province, where he had a rented old village house renovated into a decent studio, at a small cost.

But this has nothing to do with true revitalization of rural life. It’s more about a few cranky individuals who crave the open air and quiet there without having to make a living off the soil, almost certainly in the wake of significant gentrification efforts.

This in itself is a criticism of the rural life as known by our forefathers.


 

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