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 is replacing, often by fiat, 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 for decades 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, mainly to find a new source of growth for a slowing economy increasingly dependent 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 once again the site of radical social engineering.
Over the decades, the Communist Party has flip-flopped 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 dusty plains and verdant hillsides. New urban schools and hospitals offer modern services, but often at the expense of the 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 the northern province of Hebei, 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 ultimate goal of the government’s modernization plan is to fully integrate 70 percent of the country’s population, roughly 900 million people, into city living by 2025. Currently, only half that number live in cities.
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, including dozens of cases in recent years in which people have set themselves aflame rather than relocate.
On the ground, the new wave of urbanization is well underway. 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 the farmers caught up in the programs typically have no choice but to leave their land.
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.
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.