BEIJING China is pushing ahead with a sweeping plan to move 250 million rural residents into newly constructed towns and cities over the next dozen years a transformative event that could set off a new wave of growth or saddle the country with problems for generations to come.
The government, often by fiat, is replacing small rural homes with high-rises, paving over vast swaths of farmland and drastically altering the lives of rural dwellers. So large is the scale that the number of brand-new Chinese city dwellers will approach the total urban population of the United States in a country already bursting with megacities.
This will decisively change the character of China, where the Communist Party insisted that most peasants, even those working in cities, remain tied to their tiny plots of land to ensure political and economic stability. Now, the party has shifted priorities to find a new source of growth for a slowing economy that depends increasingly on a consuming class of city dwellers.
The shift is occurring so fast, and the potential costs are so high, that some fear rural China is again the site of radical social engineering. The Communist Party has flip-flopped before on peasants' rights to use land: giving small plots to farm during 1950s land reform; collectivizing a few years later; restoring rights at the start of the reform era; and now trying to obliterate small landholders.
Across China, bulldozers are leveling villages that date to long-ago dynasties. Towers now sprout skyward from plains and hillsides. New urban schools and hospitals offer modern services, but often at the expense of torn-down temples and open-air theaters of the countryside.
"It's a new world for us in the city," said Tian Wei, 43, a former wheat farmer in Hebei province, who now works as a night watchman at a factory. "All my life I've worked with my hands in the fields. Do I have the educational level to keep up with the city people?"
China has long been home to both some of the world's tiniest villages and its most congested, polluted examples of urban sprawl. The modernization plan's ultimate goal is to fully integrate 70 percent of its population, or roughly 900 million people, into city living by 2025. Only half that number are city dwellers now.
The building frenzy is on in places such as Liaocheng, which grew up as a center for wheat farmers in the North China Plain. It's now ringed by scores of 20-story towers housing now-landless farmers thrust into city life. Many are giddy at their new lives. They received free apartments plus tens of thousands of dollars for their land. Others wonder what they'll do when the money runs out.
Aggressive state spending is planned for new roads, hospitals, schools, community centers which economists estimate could cost upward of $600 billion a year. Vast sums also will be needed to pay for ex-farmers' education, health care and pensions.
While the economic fortunes of many have improved in the mass move to cities, unemployment and other social woes have also followed. Some young people feel lucky to have jobs that pay survival wages of about $150 a month. Others while away their days in pool halls and video game arcades.
Top-down efforts to quickly transform entire societies have often come to grief, and urbanization has already proven one of the most wrenching changes in China's 35 years of economic transition. Land disputes account for thousands of protests each year. And in dozens of cases, people have set themselves aflame rather than relocate.
The new urbanization is well under way, however. Almost every province has large-scale programs to move farmers into housing towers, with the farmers' plots then given to corporations or municipalities to manage. Efforts have been made to improve the attractiveness of urban life, but farmers caught up in the programs typically have no choice but to leave their land.
The broad trend began decades ago. In the early 1980s, about 80 percent of Chinese lived in the countryside vs. 47 percent today, plus an additional 17 percent who work in cities but are classified as rural. The idea is to speed up this process, achieving an urbanized China much faster than would occur organically.
Primary motivation for the urbanization push is to change China's economic structure to growth based on domestic demand for products instead of reliance on exports. 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 a 2011 survey by Landesa, 43 percent of Chinese villagers said government officials had taken or tried to take their land. That was 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 Tsinghua University public policy professor Li Dun in Beijing.
Farmers are often unwilling to leave their land because of a lack of job opportunities in the new towns. Factory work may be an option, but most jobs are far from newly built towns.
And most farmers who do get jobs in factories lose them when they hit age 45 or 50, since employers generally want younger, more nimble workers.
"For old people like us, there's nothing to do anymore," said He Shifang, 45, in the city of Ankang in Shaanxi province. She was relocated from her family's mountain farm. "We worked all the time. We had pigs and chickens. Here we just sit around and people play mah-jongg."
Some farmers who have given up their land say that when they return home for good around this age, they have no farm to tend and thus no income. Most are still excluded from national pension plans, putting pressure on relatives to provide for them.
The urbanization plan would give farmers a permanent stream of income from the land they lost. Besides a flat payout when they move, they would receive a form of shares in their former land that would pay the equivalent of dividends over a period of decades to make sure they do not end up indigent.
"I think it's OK," said Huang Zifeng, 62, a farmer in Paomageng who gave up his land. "It's more stable than farming your own land."
Financing the investment needed to start such projects is a sticking point. Chinese economists say the government need not bear the complete cost, because farmers who start working in city jobs will pay taxes and contribute to social welfare programs.
"Urbanization can launch a process of value creation," said economist Xiang Songzuo. "It should start a huge flow of revenues."