China’s Urbanization: Too Far, Too Fast?

With Beijing committed to a plan to bring another 100 million farmers from rural areas to cities and towns by 2020, some in Chinese academic circles are growing alarmed that China’s headlong urbanization is too fast, spawning environmental and social problems and should instead seek growth in the countryside.

Between 100 million and 150 million have already left the countryside over the past three decades, emptying out an estimated 900,000 villages that have been abandoned or destroyed, according to one study.

After 30 years of unbalanced growth, today China has 20 percent of the world’s population but only 9 percent of its arable land and a mere 6 percent of its fresh water. Meanwhile, reports show wealth is dropping for lower-income Chinese outside of cities, with rural rich getting richer and poor get poorer.

Pollution, social inequality

“Until recently, urbanization has been the mainstream developmentalist policy trend which is responsible for China's severe pollution and inequality," Prof. Wen Tiejun told me at a Sichuan conference last autumn, reaffirming his criticism of the dominant current of utopian marketization, in which the market is seen as a solution to all problems.

Wen is the executive director of the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies at Renmin University and one of the founders of the Institute for Rural Reconstruction at Southwest University (IRRC) and more important, he is also a member of the State Consultant Committee of Environment Protection, the coordination agency for environmental protection work under the State Council, a position that virtually gives him the power to influence environmental decision-making processes side by side with ministry-level officials.

To address the changes, Wen said, “it is necessary to work on the integration of urban and rural contexts. Three concepts should be at the heart of this development: solidarity for peasant rights, ecological agriculture security, and rural environmental sustainability. And to do this, we need to move from a capital-based political model to one based on the people.”

All of this evidence provides grist to the mills of those who, like Wen, say the success of free market and globalization policies threaten the long-term viability of China's farm families and villages by eroding the remnants of the Mao-era communes, which had provided health, education, and welfare, leaving individual families to fend for themselves. Urban expansion, for its part, drove up land prices as local officials confiscated land in order to build factories and housing for the newly affluent.

Destroying nature, family

In a 2012 report "Ecological Civilization, Indigenous Culture, and Rural Reconstruction in China," Wen and two other Chinese academics provided a detailed explanation of how the national capital has commodified the natural and human resources on which people’s livelihood depended. According to the experts, this historical process not only destroyed nature and family, but also homogenized diversified rural indigenous traditional knowledge.

What's more, it has incurred immense institutional costs and shifted the sacrifice to the society, formerly led by a village rationality derived from traditional rural culture that stressed resource sharing, income parity, cooperative solidarity, social justice, and the morality of village elites.

In a bid to change this regressive trend, in the 1990s, Wen Tiejun and other social reformers founded the New Rural Reconstruction Movement (NRM) to support the emergence of organic farming, peasants’ cooperatives, clubs of peasant workers, and community supported agriculture. They were largely inspired by the Rural Reconstruction Movement (RRM) which in the 1920s promoted a middle way independent of the Nationalist government but in competition with the radical revolutionary approach to the village espoused by Mao Zedong and the Communist Party.

Building resistance to Japan

The movement was prominent in building Chinese resistance to Japanese invasions by strengthening the village economy, culture, and political structure hoping to show that the causes of poverty, ignorance, sickness, and disorganization could be addressed without class warfare and that violent revolution was not necessary to change village life.

Joined by the American Congress after the end of WWII, the RRM set up the Sino-American Joint Commission on Rural Reconstruction, an independent entity well-known for having carried out, by one estimate, the largest non-Communist land reform program in China before 1949 and widely credited with laying the agricultural basis for Taiwan's outstanding economic growth.

Capitalizing on this experiential baggage, the New Movement has defined its own "middle way" between the reforms begun by Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s – that are no longer benefiting rural communities, especially in central and western China – and Mao-era policies which, though necessary for China to industrialize, had left the rural population in a weak position after the breakup of the commune system and the distribution of individual plots too small to use technology efficiently.

The NRM hopes to replace the “vulgar growth” and “blind advocacy of consumerism” with a “people-centered scientific approach” and sustainable development. In doing so, it gets very close to the so-called New Left, a school emerged in the late 1990s as a counterbalance to global capitalism. Labeled neo-Maoist, it calls for more emphasis on economic justice, not just economic growth. "We have no big difference," Wen said, describing the two movements.

Wang Hui, a leading representative of the New Left (and '"one of our comrades facilitating NRM development") attended the inauguration ceremony of IRRC in Chongqing in 2012 and delivered a speech at the Little Donkey Farm in 2014, a diversified organic farm just northwest of Beijing and the first community supported agriculture (CSA) farm in the Asian country.

Progressive intellectuals involved

As Sit Tsui, associate professor of IRRC, told me "actually, the rural reconstruction movement has a long history of getting progressive intellectuals involved into defending small peasantry, rural communities, as well as popular democracy.. In fact, in the mid- 2000s, the ideas and spirit of NRR started to influence a growing movement of rural experimentation, including many activists who do not use the term NRM, such as Ou Ning, an anarchist music promoter from Shenzhen behind the Bishan Project, an ambitious plan to create a prototype for China’s rural revival.

In the words of Wen Tiejun, NRM has "gone to the grassroots" and the popular movements emerging from NRM are still in the process of formation.

Meanwhile, over the decades, Beijing itself realized that the old model of growth ("at all costs") was no longer sustainable. "In 2005 the central leadership has shift to a new townization policy by enlarging the state investments into country town and rural areas' infra construction projects," said Wen. “Later, in 2007-2013, Beijing raised up a new strategy in name of ecological civilization including beautiful countryside construction. Last October, the 19th Congress strongly pointed out the rural regeneration as the national strategy."

“Ecological civilization”

Speaking at the opening session, Xi urged the implementation of an "ecological civilization," saying that China must "develop a new model of modernization with humans developing in harmony with nature."

To speed up this trend, the NRM plans to establish 1,000 “sustainable villages” across the country over the next five years. The project, in collaboration with the Italian non-profit organization Slow Food, is aimed at encouraging young farmers to return to their home villages and leave the more attractive but congested big cities.

Anren, in Dayi county near Chengdu, has been selected as the pilot for the scheme, though the plan still lacks details. After all, "a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step," Confucius said.

Alessandra Colarizi is a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel