Place names often convey a sense of history. In the case of three villages in Shandong – Yuanjia, Linjia and Sunjia – the names also convey a sense of ownership. ‘Jia’ means home in Mandarin Chinese and the three prefixes are all surnames. So these were literally the homes of the Yuan, the Lin and the Sun clans.
But that is not the case any more.
Over the past six months all three villages have been demolished as part of a “village merger” scheme, which aims to boost urbanisation rates in the eastern province.
The demolitions went ahead despite the fact that most villagers opposed the idea of moving from their ancestral homes. When the bulldozers rolled in, new homes hadn’t been built for the village residents, forcing them to rent accommodation elsewhere or stay with relatives. In many cases the farmers simply returned to their former homes and built makeshift shelters near their fields so they could tend to their crops.
According to government data 61% of people in Shandong live in “urban” areas – classified as settlements of over 100,000 people. But in a document released in May the Shandong authorities said urbanisation levels were eight percentage points lower than neighboring Jiangsu province and 10 percentage points below Guangdong’s.
Framing the situation as one of provincial shame, they urged people to cooperate with the merger scheme. “The large number of small villages in Shandong have stymied rural development. They have created problems such as high running costs and wasted land,” the government’s propaganda department said in May.
In total, 268 villages have been slated for demolition across the province.
Shandong has traditionally been a major food producer – providing fruits, vegetables and meat for the metropolises of Beijing and Shanghai. When heavy flooding hit the region in 2018 the price of some farm produce in Beijing rose 30%.
It has also been in the vanguard of agricultural modernisation, trying to increase farm size and introduce modern farming techniques as part of China’s wider drive to become less reliant on food imports. The local government’s argument is also that many of these villages are already “hollow” – meaning many of their registered residents have already moved to the cities as migrant workers. It also claims that these villages take up one of China’s most precious resources – land – without putting enough back into the economy.
By moving villagers into existing towns or newly-built housing with a smaller footprint in the same area, the government frees up two types of land: residential and agricultural. Land where the villages used to be located can be rezoned as agricultural land, with an equivalent amount of agricultural land on the outskirts of towns and cities then rezoned into residential plots that the government can then sell.
If farming folk are given new housing further away from their fields they are more likely to stop farming and sign the land over to commercial farmers, resulting in larger plot size and increased output. But the issue is that this is all meant to happen with the consent of the people who live in these villages in the first place.
A wave of particularly violent land acquisitions about 10 years ago led the central government to introduce stricter guidelines requiring the local authorities to tread carefully in this area. Yet according to Lu Dewen, the academic from Wuhan University who highlighted the situation in three villages, this process is not being respected in Shandong.
Villagers were coerced and threatened to get them to agree to the project. Vehicles with loudspeakers would drive through the settlements throughout the night and day, water and electricity supplies were disconnected, and families that initially refused to move had their homes bombarded with bottles and fireworks.
“Our rate of urbanisation is fast enough without intervention or acceleration and there is no need to push it so quickly,” Lu claimed.
Another academic, Zhang Yulin, from Nanjing University voiced his own concerns in an article on WeChat article. “There is reason to worry that radical village relocations and village mergers are likely to turn rural revitalisation strategies into rural destruction practices,” he warned.
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