Buildings, or even entire compounds, are often baked out of the same mold to allow for rapid replication across the country. Some pop-up cities are already inhabited, and others are little more than shells – “ghost cities” to skeptics. But the Chinese government has proven its resolve in populating them through both incentive and decree. Shanghai’s Pudong financial district, the prototype of new-city planning, was built on duck ponds 30 years ago. Few then could imagine the area rocketing to a powerhouse of world finance.
Critics call this practice of stacking farmers to free land for commercial use “warehousing.” Supporters say greatly improves efficiency, combats pollution, and prepares China’s infrastructure for even more ambitious projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative connecting China’s trade with the rest of the world.
For a country with a large pool of under-utilized resources, this is an effective development policy. Yet, such a levitation act only works when times are good. As China is growing at around 7% per year, it can grow out of a lot of non-performing loans and government deficits. But if it slows a few percentage points, credit would tighten, and construction projects could freeze, turning landless farmers into hordes of the angry and unemployed.
And the policies carry high social costs.
Luo Meiling, 44, was involuntarily moved into her compensation block two years ago in a newly reclaimed area outside a city in China’s south. She greets me at the elevator on the 23rd floor, and takes me through her gated front door into her apartment.
Her two-bedroom flat is neatly laid out, with a spacious living room and bright windows that look, for now, over a mass of half-built highrises. Her husband’s status as the former village secretary did little to shield them from being forced out of their home.
“My heart broke when they knocked down my family house,” says Luo. “But look, our apartment is clean, there’s a toilet, and there are no mosquitoes and no need to labour in the fields”.
Depending on local rules, each member of a displaced family is allotted 40 – 80 square meters of apartment space. With a family of five, and her husband’s former position, Luo’s family got three 100 meter apartments.
Reincarnated as urbanites, some mostly older former farmers descend into destitution with no land or skills, sleeping on the street around labor centres to be there when employers come hiring for casual work in the morning.
While the government’s plan calls for retraining in state employment agencies, the farmers I spoke with are largely supplying the unskilled labor to build the cities up around them. Many men work constructing the apartments they will move into and the schools their children will join, while women typically work in supportive industries, cooking the meals these new construction workers now have at canteens and street restaurants instead of at home. The younger generation can work in a new high tech assembly center, become an estate agent of the half-finished buildings, or take up other jobs that a new city offers.
Few lucky former farmers who got kicked out of premium plots find themselves flush with large compensations and time, leading a life of luxury compared to days slogging through agricultural chores. Enterprising folks turn their allotted units into karaoke bars or massage parlours, catering to men from the neighbourhood; others transform their garages into restaurants.