Yuan Xiaomei, a community supervisor in Kangbashi, China, tears open a cardboard box and hands out brochures and promotional fans to crowd of locals. The fans are emblazoned: “To build a civilised city, we need you. Thank you for your participation.” The residents fan themselves and flip through the brochures. One woman explains to her friend who can’t read: “It’s telling you how you should act in the city. Don’t spit, don’t throw rubbish on the streets, don’t play loud music, don’t drive on the pavement.”
It’s a lot to take in for people who, weeks earlier, were living in remote villages spread across the sparsely populated Ordos region of Inner Mongolia, China.
Fifteen miles away to the south, if you look out from the front entrance of Hao Shiwen’s farmhouse, you can see the tower blocks of Kangbashi looming over an otherwise unusually quiet pastoral landscape. Kangbashi – which became known as China’s “ghost city” when it was first built four years ago – is where Shiwen has been debating whether to move. He must decide whether to follow the path of his previous neighbours, seduced to the city by the government’s generous compensation package, or to stay in his village, now left surreally empty and quiet.
The region of Ordos made headlines in 2010 for the pre-built metropolis that had everything but people. Now, however, Kangbashi city is rapidly filling up with country people who are being encouraged to live in cities and diversify China’s economy. For ageing farmers who’ve spent their whole life on the land, however, becoming “urbanites” is a tall order.
Shiwen is one of the holdouts. Unlike the neighbours who moved, he has avoided scraping by on subsistence farming alone: he earns money on the side as a tree planter, and runs a small rural delivery business with a secondhand truck and a 200 RMB (£20) mobile phone he bought several years ago.
This success by rural standards, and his suspicion about whether work is available in the brand-new city, has made him and his wife reluctant to move. Yet as his neighbours have slowly migrated to their new apartments in the city, the rural business opportunities have dried up. Since the village doctor left also, his wife has no choice but to travel to the city for her lupus treatment. It now seems almost inevitable that they too will move, leaving behind an abandoned village, and a way of life that was once favoured, and even celebrated, during the Cultural Revolution. The irony isn’t lost on the people of Ordos: almost 50 years ago they were forced out of cities to farm, and are now being pushed back into them.
Farmers as a whole have never done well in Ordos. The thin layer of topsoil was soon degraded by crops and grazing, exacerbated by lack of rain and limited water resources. So when the government generated enormous wealth from the region’s coal industry – a further drain on water resources – they created a municipality and began pouring money into a the building of a new metropolis.
Ordos broke ground in 2005, and made headlines in 2010 for being China’s largest ‘ghost city’. But in 2011 the government started to move large numbers of farmers off their land, under the guise that small-scale agriculture was failing in Ordos, and into the city, with the hope their lives would improve. As for the farmland, it is to be consolidated in areas for industrial agriculture, or converted back into grassland and forest in an effort to curb the sandstorms that have been known to blight the region.
Urban Ordos is eager for new residents to occupy the thousands of empty apartments, offices, and commercial spaces, of which more are built every day. The many reports declaring Kangbashi and its surrounding districts a “ghost city” were an embarrassment to the local government, which claims the recent relocation of rural residents to the city was always part of the central urbanisation plan. Ordos is a kind of test run for Beijing’s plans to urbanise the vast rural interior of China, and relocate 250 million farmers over the next two decades.
The new efforts to create a livelier city appear to be working in Ordos, at least on the surface: it is visibly more active than four years ago. But filling the districts with relocated ex-farmers is a challenge.
When Yuan Xiaomei began working for the Ordos government in 2011, her job mostly involved going out to villages in the countryside to convince farmers to relocate and to negotiate compensation for their farmland and property. It’s a less dramatic process than the forced relocations that happened for the Olympics: in some cases, Xiaomei has to go out to villages five or six times to persuade farmers to move.
As the villages emptied out, her role switched to helping the new city residents overcome urban challenges. Small challenges have been relatively easy: she urges residents who are used to cooking over wood fires to remember to turn off the gas in their new kitchens; she gives them tips on how to manage a bank account, and pointers on how to act appropriately in an urban environment.
It is the larger challenges, though, that are proving harder to fully tackle: primarily employment. Hao Shiwen’s main concern about moving to the city is how he’d support himself and his wife. Since an economic downturn hit Ordos, fuelled largely by municipal debt, the government has been offering less compensation to new residents. Shiwen knows the money is enough to attain the initial furnishings of urban life, but doesn’t know how he could afford to maintain a life in the city without a full-time job.
Several of his previous neighbours have had trouble finding work in the private sector, such as in the city’s new car assembly plant, which was enticed to Ordos by tax incentives, or in the city’s two main industries, coal and construction, which both favour younger workers. Some of Shiwen’s neighbours enrolled in a government program that pays them to complete simple tasks, such as sweeping the streets after sandstorms, and planting tree saplings and flowers. On his farm, Shiwen can heat his own home with a log-burning stove, grow all of his own food and get his water from a well. In the city, all of these things need to be bought, and it’s debatable whether a low-paid, unskilled job would could support a standard of living higher than what he’s used to in the countryside.
After all, the stated aim of the whole urban relocation plan is to improve the lives of rural people, and boost domestic consumption by creating millions of new urban consumers. Both aims are well-founded: the gap between rural and urban incomes has widened at an alarming rate, and rural migrants in cities aren’t eligible for benefits, due to an antiquated registration system. China feels that it is too reliant on manufacturing for export: the global economic downturn of 2008/09 saw consumer demand suddenly drop around the world, leaving millions of migrants, working in factories producing goods bound for export, without a job. So the central government wants to shift the economy towards domestic manufacturing, for domestic consumption.
While the national aims are justifiable, the outcomes, at least in Ordos, are mixed. Simply pushing unskilled farmers into urban labour hasn’t yet translated into disposable incomes high enough for a diverse consumer economy. Educating the farmers is now the focal point of the Ordos government, to ensure new residents of all ages have the skills necessary to land jobs and live a purposeful urban life. The goal is to build the tax base to support urban education, healthcare and infrastructure.
It won’t work everywhere in China. Arguably, Ordos has been able to achieve what it has due to the enormous wealth generated by the coal industry, cheap land to build on, a willing rural populace generally happy to accept large compensation packages, and the lack of an existing urban population. There are many enormous new urban districts finished or currently under construction all across China, but the difference is that most are attached to mother cities: Zhengdong on the outskirts of Zhengzhou, Binhai in Tianjin or Chenggong in Kunming, to name a few. If these new urban districts follow suit and house relocated farmers, they may have a better chance of immediately igniting a thriving economy, because they can plug into the economies of their mother cities. Unlike Ordos, though, they have an existing urban population who are less willing to extend their urban benefits and resources to new arrivals.
China’s city-dwellers are used to the very visible presence of rural residents: they’re used to them doing most of the heavy work for low pay and few benefits. China’s strict hukou system ties benefits to where you’re born, not where you choose to move. The central government has been talking for several years about reforming the hukou system, and granting urban status to rural people who choose to live in a city. But adding millions of new official residents will stretch the benefits system, and the financial burden might have to be shared with existing urban populations. Ordos doesn’t have that problem: it had no urban population to begin with.
Ordos is therefore somewhat of a special case in China. It is attempting to urbanise from scratch. It’s too early to tell if the new city will ever truly thrive, or whether you can in fact build a city from scratch. The hope is that the influx of farmers will cause a tipping point, creating demand for goods and services, leading to an influx of real souls into China’s ghost city.
Adam James Smith’s documentary The Land of Many Palaces will premiere in January.
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