New China Cities: Shoddy Homes, Broken Hope

November 9, 2013

New China Cities: Shoddy Homes, Broken Hope


HUAMING, China — Three years ago, the Shanghai World Expo featured this newly built town as a model for how China would move from being a land of farms to a land of cities. In a dazzling pavilion visited by more than a million people, visitors learned how farmers were being given a new life through a fair-and-square deal that did not cost them anything. Today, Huaming may be an example of another transformation: the ghettoization of China’s new towns.Signs of social dysfunction abound. Young people, who while away their days in Internet cafes or pool halls, say that only a small fraction of them have jobs. The elderly are forced to take menial work to make ends meet. Neighborhood and family structures have been damaged.

Most worrying are the suicides, which local residents say have become an all-too-familiar sign of despair.

As China pushes ahead with government-led urbanization, a program expected to be endorsed at a Communist Party Central Committee meeting that began Saturday, many worry that the scores of new housing developments here may face the same plight as postwar housing projects in Western countries. Meant to solve one problem, they may be creating a new set of troubles that could plague Chinese cities for generations.

“We’re talking hundreds of millions of people who are moving into these places, but the standard of living for these relocatees has actually dropped,” said Lynette Ong, a University of Toronto political scientist who has studied the resettlement areas. “On top of that is the quality of the buildings — there was a lot of corruption, and they skimped on materials.”

Huaming is far from being a dangerous slum. It has no gangs, drug use or street violence. Nearly half the town is given over to green space. Trees line the streets that lead to elementary, middle and high schools.

But the new homes have cracked walls, leaking windows and elevators with rusted out floors. For farmers who were asked to surrender their ancestral lands for an apartment, the deterioration adds to a sense of having been cheated.

“That was their land,” said Wei Ying, a 35-year-old unemployed woman whose parents live in a poorly built unit. “You have to understand how they feel in their heart.”

The sense of despair and alienation surfaces in the suicides, a late-night leap from a balcony, drinking of pesticide or lying down on railroad tracks.

“I have anxiety attacks because we have no income, no job, nothing,” said Feng Aiju, 40, a former farmer who moved to Huaming in 2008 against her will. She said she had spent a small fortune by local standards, $1,500, on antidepressants. “We never had a chance to speak; we were never asked anything. I want to go home.”

The situation in these new towns contrasts with the makeshift housing where other migrants live. Many of those are created by farmers who chose to leave their land for jobs in the city. Although cramped and messy, they are full of vitality and upward mobility, said Biao Xiang, a social anthropologist at Oxford University who has studied migrant communities.

“These migrant neighborhoods in big cities are often called slums, but it’s the new resettlement communities that will be harder to revive, partly because they are not related to any productive economic activity,” Professor Xiang said. “And the population tend to be homogeneous, disadvantaged communities.”

Addressing ‘Disorder’

The idea behind Huaming was radically different. In 2005, Huaming Township was chosen to be a demonstration for successful, planned urbanization. A township is an administrative unit in China above a village but below a county, and Huaming had 41,000 people living in 12 small villages dotted across 60 square miles, most of which was farmland.

For northern China it was unusually fertile because water was plentiful. On the outskirts of one of China’s largest cities, the port of Tianjin, it was well known for its local handicrafts, such as decorative paper-cutting, and, especially, its vegetables that were easily sold in the big city.

City planners, however, saw it as a major problem.

“The naturally formed villages had undergone disorderly developments resulting in low building density, in disarrayed industrial space and layout,” according to a publication explaining the need for change. (Officials refused requests for interviews, but have published copiously on the project, allowing insights into their thinking.) The villages had no sewage treatment, and were “dirty, messy and substandard.”

The idea was to consolidate the villages into one new town called Huaming that would take up less than one square mile, versus the three square miles that the dozen villages had occupied. A portion of the remaining 59 square miles could be sold to developers to pay for construction costs, meaning the new buildings would cost farmers and the government nothing.

The rest of the land would stay agricultural, but worked by a few remaining farmers using modern methods. This would achieve another aim: not reducing the amount of arable land — a crucial goal for a country with a huge population and historic worries about being able to feed itself.

Construction started in March 2006, and was finished just 16 months later. The town is made up of six- to nine-story buildings divided into gated compounds of a dozen or so buildings each. Commercial space is officially limited to two streets, making the rest of town a quiet residential area centered on the new public schools. An attractive park and lake are given over at night to dancing and socializing.

The biggest selling point in official literature is how space was to be allocated. Farmers would able to trade the living space in their farmhouse for the same-size apartment in the new town. Even the yard around the farmhouse figured into the equation.

What happened was more complicated. Most families got 322 square feet per member. That is 22 square feet more than the average per capita living space in the city of Tianjin, but most of the new units were just 800 square feet, so a typical family of three would not get their full allotment. In theory, they could use the remaining allotment and spend their own money to purchase another unit, but most ended up with less floor space than they had on the farm.

Some were still happy to take up the offer. In interviews, those most happy about the new plan already had nonfarming jobs and saw this as a way to get a modern apartment.

“It’s survival of the fittest,” said Yang Huashuai, a 25-year-old electrician and gypsy-cab driver who said his family got three apartments. “If you don’t work hard, you don’t deserve to make it.”

But many others did not want to leave their land. By 2008, the government’s offer had met limited success, with only half the population choosing to move. Already, though, government propaganda was extolling Huaming as a success, and officials planned to feature it at the world’s fair in two years’ time.

“They said if we didn’t move, it would affect the World Expo,” said Jia Qiufu, 69, a former resident of Guanzhuang Village. “They said it had to happen by 2009 because the Expo was the next year.”

The local government used intense pressure to force farmers out of their villages. It tore up roads and cut electricity and water. Even so, thousands stayed on. As a final measure, the schoolhouses — one in each village — were demolished. With no utilities and no way to educate their children, most farmers capitulated and moved to town.

Losing the Jobs Competition

Besides dissatisfaction over the amount of space they would receive, farmers were most concerned about jobs, a common worry in other resettlement projects. In the official literature, Huaming had that taken care of. Compared with relocation projects in remote rural areas, such as southern Shaanxi Province, Huaming is next to a major transportation corridor, the Beijing-Tianjin Expressway. It is also adjacent to Tianjin’s massive airport logistics center, which is expanding and adding thousands of jobs.

Many farmers said, however, that they were not qualified for these jobs.

“We know how to farm, but not how to work in an office,” said Wei Dushen, a former resident of Guanzhuang Village now living in town. “Those are for educated people.”

Almost uniformly, Huaming residents say the only jobs open to them are in dead-end menial positions, such as street sweepers or low-level security guards. These jobs pay the equivalent of $150 a month.

Even so, competition for them is fierce. Poor migrants from other parts of China are willing to work for even less, often because they have lower living costs. Almost all the gardening in public spaces in Huaming, for example, is done by workers from the inland province of Henan who come for a short time and leave. Workers pruning bushes in the town’s beautifully manicured park, for example, said they were paid $100 a month and were happy for it.

“Compared to Henan it’s good work,” said Zhuang Wei, 58, who said he lived in a room with five other men and ate simple canteen food offered by the company that had brought him to Huaming. “I’ll stick around here for a few months and then head back.”

Other migrants, mostly from Shandong Province, dominate Huaming’s taxi industry because they have teams of experienced mechanics, drivers and dispatchers.

“You can’t really compete with them,” said one local driver, Wei Zhen. “They’re professionals who have been doing this for years.”

Retraining was supposed to have allowed Huaming villagers a chance to get skills to compete. According to official literature, $1,500 was allotted for each resident. However, it was impossible to find any who had received retraining or had heard of anyone who had.

For young people, the problems are especially acute.

Even when they can get the well-paying menial jobs of $150 a month, residents overwhelmingly said this barely allowed them to make ends meet. Day care costs $100 per month per child, which would take a third of an average couple’s salary. Unlike in the villages, many families do not live near one another, making it hard to leave children with their grandparents.

Costs are also high. Inflation has nearly doubled the price of rice, something the residents find especially galling because in the past they grew it themselves.

Many young people seem to have given up trying to find work. Internet cafes are packed with them playing games. Although the cafes are supposed to be limited to the commercial streets, they are found in converted apartments in many housing blocks.

In one, 28-year-old Zhang Wei said he had invested $4,300 to renovate an apartment and install computers. The unit’s former living room was packed with young people hunched over screens, many of them playing games like World of Warcraft for money.

“They’re all unemployed local people, but without qualifications, what can they do?” Mr. Zhang said.

In a nearby unit, Liu Baohua, an unemployed 62-year-old farmer, said the buildings were almost uninhabitable during the winter. “These buildings look modern outside, but they’re not,” Mr. Liu said. “It’s the worst quality.”

Mr. Liu’s apartment leaks water from the ceiling, which he said maintenance crews told him they could not fix. Windows were double-glazed but the quality was bad and seals broken, causing them to mist up with condensation. Radiators, he said, had almost no hot water. He also showed work bills from maintenance visits in January confirming that his north-facing bedroom was 55 degrees.

“We need to buy space heaters to survive here,” Mr. Liu said. His wife works as a street sweeper and the couple get the equivalent of welfare for an additional $60 a month.

For many, the disappointment leads to suicides. Recently, residents said, a 19-year-old man ill with cancer flung himself off the family’s third-floor balcony at 5:30 a.m. and landed on the parking lot next to two vans serving breakfast. His father dead and his mother living on welfare, the family was too poor to afford further cancer treatment. The story could not be verified with the authorities but was repeated independently by residents.

The Good Earth

More common are stories of old people who cannot get used to the new lives and quickly die of illnesses. One term that residents repeatedly use is “biesi” — “stifled to death” in the new towers.

“I’m tired, I’m so tired,” said an elderly woman who would give only her surname, Wei. In the past, Chinese farmers wanted sons because they lived at home, whereas daughters married into other families. Now, this is reversed because of the burden of having to help a son find a home or job.

Mrs. Wei said her son had bought a car with the family savings but was losing money driving it. The family’s savings now almost exhausted, she said she did not know what to do.

“It’s tough having a son,” she said, quietly weeping. “I wish I had a daughter.”

Some residents wonder why they went through these travails when so little development is visible. Outside the town, most of the former township lies empty. Some hotels and office blocks have been built next to the airport logistics center. But mostly, one is confronted by mile after mile of empty lots — once farmland, now lying fallow, sometimes blocked from view by endless sheet-metal fences painted with propaganda about prosperity and development.

“Look at the empty fields,” said Wei Naiju, formerly of Guanzhuang Village. “That’s good earth; you could really plant something on it.”

Driving through the demolished villages with former residents is especially poignant. Some of the streets are still serviceable but mostly one is surrounded by a gutted, bombed-out landscape of foundations overgrown with scrub and small trees.

Given all the fallow land, claims that agricultural production would not suffer do not seem possible. Official propaganda material shows greenhouses that produce vegetables. Many greenhouses have indeed been built, but dozens were empty during a visit in June. Doors swung wildly in the wind and the clear plastic used to let the sun in was torn and flapping. Two greenhouses seemed to be functioning; local residents said they were used to make gifts of produce to visiting leaders as Potemkin-like proof of the still-vibrant agricultural sector.

Back in town, the life that once existed in the township has been memorialized in a museum. It is rarely open to the public, but its front door was ajar one day this past summer. Filled with full-scale dioramas of village homes and human figures, it was a re-creation of the old village life, accurate down to the dried corn hanging from the eaves. An introductory plaque explained: “Time goes by, and things change.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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