Monday Roundup: Rural China

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The most e-mailed story out of The New York Times Sunday night was a long report about China’s efforts to move 250 million people from rural communities to cities. The effort will either “set off a new wave of growth or saddle the country with problems for generations to come,” writes Ian Johnson.

Residential towers are going up all over the country to house farmers who are being moved off the land. The state owns the land, so nothing is taken. But ways of life are being altered totally.

The full story is amazing and you should read it, but here are some quotes that tell how huge — and ominous for rural China — this effort of social engineering is and will be. Here is the theory China is working on, according to Johnson:

The primary motivation for the urbanization push is to change China’s economic structure, with growth based on domestic demand for products instead of relying so much on export. In theory, new urbanites mean vast new opportunities for construction companies, public transportation, utilities and appliance makers, and a break from the cycle of farmers consuming only what they produce. “If half of China’s population starts consuming, growth is inevitable,” said Li Xiangyang, vice director of the Institute of World Economics and Politics, part of a government research institute. “Right now they are living in rural areas where they do not consume.”

The costs of this top-down approach can be steep. In one survey by Landesa in 2011, 43 percent of Chinese villagers said government officials had taken or tried to take their land. That is up from 29 percent in a 2008 survey.

“In a lot of cases in China, urbanization is the process of local government driving farmers into buildings while grabbing their land,” said Li Dun, a professor of public policy at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

Farmers are often unwilling to leave the land because of the lack of job opportunities in the new towns. Working in a factory is sometimes an option, but most jobs are far from the newly built towns. And even if farmers do get jobs in factories, most lose them when they hit age 45 or 50, since employers generally want younger, nimbler workers.

“For old people like us, there’s nothing to do anymore,” said He Shifang, 45, a farmer from the city of Ankang in Shaanxi Province who was relocated from her family’s farm in the mountains. “Up in the mountains we worked all the time. We had pigs and chickens. Here we just sit around and people play mah-jongg.”

Center of Attention. The News & Observer of Raleigh ran a series on the N.C. Rural Economic Development Center. The N&O says the center exaggerated the number of jobs their grants generated and played politics. The articles are timed to coincide precisely with a legislative debate over the center’s state funding.

The N&O points out that one of the  center’s harshest critics – state budget director Art Pope – owns a chain of discount stores that benefitted from center funding. Pope called for big cuts in state funding for the center.

Montana Senate Seat. The Billings Gazette is reporting that former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer is getting ready to run for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Max Baucus.

Both Baucus and Schweitzer are Democrats. The state leans Republican in presidential contests, but analysts say the former governor could keep the seat in Democratic hands.

What’s Left for West? We know that the philanthropic world isn’t coming to the rescue of West, the Texas town wrecked by an explosion at a fertilizer plant. The blast killed 15 people and destroyed 200 homes and three schools.

Last week we learned that the Federal Emergency Management Agency wasn’t going to help any more either. FEMA said no more federal aid was coming to the town, after the agency spent $7 million on relief immediately after the blast.

(This has given Republican Gov. Rick Perry a reason to gig President Obama. “I was on the stage in Waco when the president of the United States looked into the eyes of the people of West, Texas, and said, ‘We’re going to do everything we can to make sure you are taken care of.’ And so this doesn’t square. Maybe FEMA wasn’t paying attention. Maybe FEMA didn’t get the message,” Perry said last week of the president’s recent visit to West.)

The editorial board of the Austin (TX) American-Statesman has a good idea. Texas has over $8 billion in a “rainy day” fund. Why shouldn’t the state come to the aid of West and its $34.55 million in uninsured losses?

The Statesman wrote: “FEMA is doing its part to help in that effort. The question West and other Texas residents should be asking is why their own state government is not doing more?”

Up, Up and Away. Google is launching, literally, a new Internet access initiative – high altitude balloons carrying equipment that beams Internet signals back to earth in hard-to-reach areas. Google conducted a test of the technology in New Zealand last week.

The first person to get Internet access through the experiment had a connection for about 15 minutes before the balloon went out of range. Farmer Charles Nimmo said he sometimes spends more than $1,000 a month for Internet access. His first use of the balloon-assisted Internet connection was to check the weather to see whether it was a good day for some sheep-raising activities.

 

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