Sunday, September 25, 2011

Out of the Hills in Chongqing

New residents of the city are happy they no longer have to walk up and down the mountain.

Some areas of China are carrying out massive social engineering projects that involve moving vast numbers of rural people around the countryside. In many cases, the projects remove people from the path of water projects. But there also is a strategy of depopulating overcrowded rural areas to free up land for farming.

One of the most adventurous regions is Chongqing, an area traditionally dominated by poor, small farms on hillsides that is now receiving massive investment as a focal point of the "develop the west" strategy. Last week, The Chongqing Morning News profiled families that moved from the country to a city and others that moved from a mountain village to a better piece of land. A T.V. news broadcast also profiled farmers who had moved to the city and were making money raising rabbits.

Ms. Yang was among the first families in Kai county to be moved to Feng Le Town at the end of 2010. She pointed out the window and said her former home was to the north of a nearby hill. She had to walk 30 minutes up and down the mountain to get to a market.

Describing the isolation of her former home, Ms. Yang said, "Six years ago, when there was no road, we had to ask someone to climb the hill in order to get pesticides and fertilizer. I had to pay two people 10 yuan each to carry a pig down the hill when it was ready for market."

Ms. Yang's determination to leave the countryside is linked to a "geological disaster" in 2005 when her house collapsed. A quick Google search shows that "geological disasters" (land slides?) in reservoir districts have long been a major concern in the Three Gorges region of the Yangtze River. In 2005, this was described as a hot topic raised by the Chongqing delegation at the National Peoples Congress. The 30-meter fluctuation of water levels between winter and summer in the Three Gorges reservoir undermined the river bank.

While the government gave a subsidy to rebuild the Yangs' house, they decided to move to the Fengle Town. They found a piece of land to rent and spent 80,000 yuan to build a 2-room house on it. One of the rooms was rented to her father and older sister. Mr. and Ms. Yang lived in the other room. The house's value is now up to 200,000 yuan.

Late in 2010, the Yangs heard about Chongqing's household registration (hukou) reform. She went to the household registration reform office and got her residence status changed from rural to urban. Her house has already been demolished and the land it occupied has been converted to farmland. The Yangs got 70,000 yuan in compensation for the land.

The Yangs invested 60,000 yuan in the social insurance fund which entitles them to an annuity of 1000 yuan per month. Ms. Yang says the 1000-yuan pension is enough for them and she expects the government to raise it in the future. The Yangs say they are accustomed to urban life. They take their grandson to school and hang out on the street after dinner.

The second part of the Chongqing strategy is "rural to rural" movement of poor rural people onto the land freed up by rich people who have moved into the city. The head of the Kai County hukou reform office puts it this way: "Poor people from high mountains can rent the land and houses of rich rural people who move into the city!" Over the past two years, Chongqing has moved 260,000 people into cities and has completed 15,000 "rural to rural" moves.

In Kai County's Maocheng Village, Lai Congzhen was the first of 10 households to move down from the mountains. Lai says the soil was so poor on the mountain they could only grow sweet potatoes. If they wanted to eat rice or other food they had to get cash to buy it by taking something to the town to sell. In their new home they can grow 1000 jin of millet. The rights to the land they cultivate have been reassigned to the Lais.

On the mountain it was hard to get medications and Ms. Lai was determined to move off the mountain so her children could get educated and find spouses. Another family, the Gaos, bought their house from their land lord for just 30,000 yuan in 2009. By now it has quadrupled in value. The Gaos harvest 2000 jin of millet and their children earn money from working.

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