by Rhodri C. Williams
No half-measures to be taken in China’s peaceful rise, it seems. An astonishing New York Times piece recently reviewed the implications of a policy still not finally approved in Beijing but apparently in full swing in the provinces – according to which (wait for it) 250 million people will be forcibly urbanized over the next 12-15 years. That is more than the population of Indonesia, the fourth largest country in the world. If the policy succeeds, the world’s most populous country will have gone from being 80% rural in the early 1980s to 70% urban two generations later.
The scope of the project is almost unfathomable (enjoy the NYT video, in which nighttime images of scores of the world’s biggest cities are overflown before a 250 million headcount is racked up). As is the potential for rights violations, accretion of social ills and mayhem that could result. One observer is quoted as stating that this is program is neither less ambitious nor less risky than the disastrous Great Leap Forward in the 1960s. So why bother?
The official answer seems to be the need to complete the transition from a low wage-low skills export-driven economy to a high wage-high skills society driven by domestic consumption. All very well of course, if the said consumer base develops organically, but can it really be created from projecting yesterday’s farmers like so many cannonballs up into high-rise apartments? More worrisome, the unofficial answer may be that an existing problematic trend of official peri-urban land-grabbing can no longer be denied or stopped and so must now be officially claimed and sanctioned in order to ensure the appearance that the state controls market forces rather than vice versa.
In covering a land dispute in China in December 2011, the Wall Street Journal cited Yu Jianrong, of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences on the scale of the problem and its implications for agricultural production:
Mr. Yu estimates that local officials have seized about 16.6 million acres of rural land (more than the entire state of West Virginia) since 1990, depriving farmers of about two trillion yuan ($314 billion) due to the discrepancy between the compensation they receive and the land’s real market value.
China’s Land Ministry has also warned that misappropriation of farmland has brought the country dangerously close to the so-called red line of 296 million acres of arable land that the government believes it needs to feed China’s 1.34 billion people.
As pointed out by the WSJ, as well as a more recent piece on Asian land grabbing by Joel Brinkley in Politico, the reason that this dynamic cannot be stopped is that land has become the stakes for a national pyramid scheme in which each municipal administration digs its successors into a deeper spiral of confiscation and debt:
In China, … local government officials have accrued almost $2 trillion in debt that isn’t on the national government’s books. So year after year, Xia Yeliang, an economics professor at Peking University, said in an interview, local mayors grab residents’ property, sell it to developers, use the money to make the minimum debt payments and then pocket the rest — leaving the standing debt for the next mayor, who is likely to behave the same way.
China’s illegal land seizures — usually with no compensation — are reported to have netted $482 billion in 2011 alone, the most recent year for which figures are available.
The idea that China’s leadership has been railroaded into endorsing what may be a fundamentally unsustainable socio-economic trend is bad enough. However, implications of the broader trend toward mass resettlement and social engineering in China are even more sinister in parts of China inhabited by significant minority populations, such as the Xinjiang and Tibetan autonomous regions.
In a report released yesterday, for instance, Human Rights Watch accused the Chinese authorities of relocating over two million Tibetans, as well as subjecting further thousands of nomadic herders to villageization programs, ostensibly in order to provide them with greater socio-economic security:
While the main justification for the rehousing and relocation policies in Tibetan areas have been economic, the Chinese government has also made clear that these policies are an integral part of larger political objectives such as combating ethno-national or “separatist” sentiment among Tibetans, and are designed to strengthen political control over the Tibetan rural population.
Despite their involuntary character and unequal outcomes, the central government is using rehousing and relocation policies in Tibetan areas as a template for relocating ethnic minority communities in other parts of the country. In June 2011, the central government instructed all provincial units, including Sichuan, Qinghai, and Gansu, and autonomous regions, including Inner-Mongolia, Xinjiang, and Tibet, to complete all ongoing relocation programs for hundreds of thousands of nomadic herders by the end of 2014.
China is an extraordinary country with extraordinary ambitions, but one in which the top-down approach that has helped to foster so much change has also spurred protests, resistance and in some cases violence. The question now is whether the country’s leadership has bitten off more than it can chew in seeking to urbanize so many so quickly and with so little in the way of democratic consultation or accountability.