Left behind in a city stampede

November 3, 2007

New Red Village is a ghost town after its inhabitants joined the millions sharing the spoils in China's big smoke, write John Garnaut and Maya Li.


The streets of New Red Village are freshly laid with bright, white cement. Almost every home is a modern brick, with a new indoor toilet, hot running water and a neat concrete outhouse. The village has two immaculate hospitals, a cultural leisure centre, a modern waste-disposal system, a new export food-processing factory and a double story government office complex - with parking for 200 cars.

There is a grand new community square with three shiny flagpoles and fluttering red Chinese flags. The village has had a revolutionary facelift to match its shiny patriotic name. Welcome to China's answer to Pleasantville, where officials from Harbin, Beijing and even Kazakhstan sometimes park their cavalcades. It is a model village in the President, Hu Jintao's, "New Socialist Countryside" - and perhaps the strangest hamlet in north-east China.

The official reports and newspaper clippings fail to mention one thing: barely anyone lives here anymore. The vast village car park has no cars, the great village square has no people. Rows of immaculate houses stand empty, with their big Australian-esque suburban backyards. The impressive kimchi (Korean pickle) factory was completed last year, with a huge landscaped garden, but it is yet to sell any kimchi.

"Of the 1450 people in this village, 1050 have gone," concedes the powerful village Communist Party secretary, Sun Yingzi, as she sits cross-legged on the heated floor of her Korean-style home. "About 400 or 500 are in South Korea and another 400 are in in Qingdao, Shanghai and Japan."

And Sun's headcount of 400 remaining residents may be a wild exaggeration. Others can think of just five children under seven and another five adults aged between 20 and 45. All up, they say, there are about 250 people - one-sixth of the population of 15 years ago. Almost all of the able-bodied people have fled.

The wider world is coming to terms with the front-end of China's industrial revolution, where an estimated 132 million people have made their way from the land to the big smoke in just 15 years. These migrant workers are pouring concrete and carting bricks in Beijing's jaw-dropping construction boom. They are caring for the babies of rich parents in Shanghai, hacking coal in tiny mine shafts in the central province of Shaanxi, or assembling the world's toys, computers and machinery in vast factory-scapes near Hong Kong.

Young people are setting out for financial opportunities their parents could never have imagined. Women are discovering a kind of urban liberation after the patriarchal strictures of a Confucian countryside.

But outsiders know little about the gutted villages left behind, especially in China's north-east and inland provinces, where there is relatively little rural private enterprise. It is hard to believe, but vast swathes of this country of 1.3 billion people could be running out of peasants.

Alan de Brauw, a China expert at Washington's Institute of Food Policy Research, says the scale and pace of change is too great for policy makers to keep up with. "In the West we have seen the slow decay of country towns," de Brauw says. "But China has a million villages and it's happening much faster than anything we've ever seen before."

And with more than half the population still in rural areas, there is still a long way to go. "If China were to catch up to an urbanisation level commensurate with its per capita income, then the population of the United States would have to leave rural areas in the next 15 years," de Brauw says.

Rural children are choosing quick money in the city over high school, and sending it back to build big brick houses that their parents perhaps don't need. A generation of babies are growing up in the care of grandparents, hundreds of kilometres from their working mothers and fathers. Tens of thousands of rural communities are evolving into retirement villages, but with no one left to look after the elderly.

Dr Liu Kaiming, director of the Shenzhen Institute of Contemporary Observation, has been tracking migrant workers from the countryside for more than a decade. He says New Red Village stands out for the sheer scale of perfectly impractical investment. But it is just one of countless impressive but half-empty villages across the country. "The houses are all beautiful but there is nobody home. These villages are pretty, empty shells without any meaning."

Most villages are still home to young mothers, or at least their children. But Red New Village is devoid of both. The elderly who remain are comparatively rich thanks to remittances from distant working children. But that does not mean life is easy. Out in the black-soil rice fields it is harvest time. Only the old, a few school-age boys and a pair of stocky draught horses are left to do the work. These days the old peasants have to buy outside help - and the price is getting expensive.

"Last year I was paying workers 20 to 30 yuan a day," says Han Rongquan, 56. "This year it's hard to find anybody for 50 yuan - because there's nobody left in the village."

The village was settled by North Korean refugees in 1954, just after their country was shattered by war. The villagers still speak Korean, prefer dog meat to pork, sleep on raised communal platforms and fraternise in living rooms that have no furniture. The cultural and linguistic legacy provides an advantage over other Chinese who are competing for well-paying city jobs, as it is a passport into entrepreneurial Korean communities in China and abroad. But the history of war and separation compounds the emptiness of those left behind.

Jin Wangen, or Kim Man kun as he is still known in Korean, arrived here as a 15-year-old refugee in 1954, and hasn't seen his siblings since. "In 1982 I went back to North Korea to find my grandparents," he says. "I didn't find them, so I had no chance of finding my brothers and sisters."

These days, Kim occupies himself by watching over three empty houses on either side, where neighbours used to live.

His own home is more than big enough, with a stereo and a fancy rice cooker, but it could do with a clean. Nobody is familiar enough to gently signal that his clothes aren't properly zipped up.

Kim's wife is dead and his children have left for the city. One son is working in Canada, the other in a nearby city called A'cheng. Does he miss them? "I think of them always," he says. Will they ever return? "Young people aren't interested in coming home."

His son in A'cheng will soon join his daughter-in-law in Seoul, South Korea, when she repays her yuan60,000 ($8700) people-smuggling debt. Asked whether he likes living in a village with perfect amenities, Kim gives a perfectly Chinese reply: "Whether I like it or not it will still be the same."

F or thousands of years, three and four generations of rural Chinese families have cared for each other under shared roofs. Their greatest challenge has always been sharing resources between so many people, but now it is living with so few. Sun Yingzi, the village secretary, knows what it is like to be alone. Her oldest daughter is a professor at a university in Seoul, married to a South Korean. Her youngest daughter works in Shanghai. She would like to get them back.

But, like officials in Beijing, she can offer only an engineer's solutions to complex sociological problems. "Last year we built indoor toilets - they're convenient and hygienic. They've all got electric water heaters, too. This village is better than Shanghai - it is more comfortable and the air is clean," she says. "I am making this village beautiful so migrant workers will want to stay when they return to visit."

Sun claims her efforts have already enticed some migrants home, but can offer no example. Sun is intelligent, poised and famous across the province for being a canny political operator. She is one of fewer than 1 per cent of village party secretaries who are female.

Her professional and financial incentives are tied to the breathtaking volume of investment she has goaded from the provincial and central governments. She has achieved this by carefully cultivating those above her in the township, county and provincial governments. Displayed beneath the glass of a low Korean table is a photo of her with all the top officials in Heilongjiang province. Her wall is plastered with this year's harvest of merit certificates.

But Sun seldom has to answer to those who live beneath her. Around the corner, one of the town's few young men - a doctor - is lying in his waiting room, listening to the radio. It's 3pm and we are his third visitors for the day.

The doctor handcuffed himself to the village by accepting a university fees-for-service deal - and has been steadily growing angrier ever since. He can't leave until he has served five years and repaid yuan100,000. He has two years to go. "Anyone who can go has gone," he says. "Those who can't are all sick and old. It's only me staying here by myself, like a fool."

The doctor appears relieved to have an audience. He is perhaps the only internet-savvy person in the village. When he escapes, he plans to write a blog to tell the world what village life is really like. And he will have plenty to say. "Reporters say Sun Yingzi is like the mother of Christ," says the doctor about his leader. "Don't trust them. Everything that's built so nicely here is fake, to deceive outsiders. The people have yellow skin because the water has been poisoned by the plastic factory."

In April last year, when Hu's "Building a New Socialist Countryside" project was in need of showcase projects, the doctor says village leaders overlooked a cheap and competent local work team but paid hugely inflated construction fees for outsiders to build nice-looking but shoddy roads. The roads were ready just in time for an entourage from Beijing.

There is a suggestion that politicians have been madly inflating invoices and cutting construction corners to make room for chunky kickbacks. "The main road starts six metres wide but it's 4.5 metres by the time it gets to the kimchi factory - why do you think that is?" he asks.

The doctor is one of only a small class with the critical skills and personal experience to diagnose the social and governance problems of the Chinese countryside. But he has no intention of staying around to right the things that are wrong.

Today he has been listening to old kung-fu stories over the radio, about travelling heroes slaying bandits. "I'm always dreaming that I'm one of them, that my life is like that," he says. "You guys are foolish for bothering to come. If I could go, I would."