Friday, June 23, 2006


Urban change for rural China.
By Carrie Gracie Wuxi County, west China.

Deep in Wuxi County in the west of China, a sleepy village is undergoing radical change - a symbol of China's economic revolution. Everything is about to change for White Horse Village.

Watch the report

No-one has ever heard of Wuxi County, let alone White Horse Village, and in a way, that's why we chose it. It's the China that doesn't figure in the economic miracle, the China of 700 million farmers still eking a living out of tiny plots of land. But it's now symptomatic of one of the most important stories in China, the story of whether Beijing can take an ancient brooding hinterland of subsistence farmers and drag it into the narrative of rising 21st century superpower.

Cultural revolution
Until now White Horse Village has been sheltered from the great convulsions of Chinese history.
True, the land was collectivised after the Communist revolution, people here died of hunger during Chairman Mao's Great Leap Forward, and the party secretary spent his Cultural Revolution marching and flag waving like teenagers across China.

Work has already started on transforming the landscapeBut location has been both curse and blessing to White Horse Village. Tucked in behind the mountains that rise to the north of the Yangtse's famous Three Gorges, it's always been too remote to play a role in China's triumphs or its catastrophes. All that is about to change.

The Three Gorges project is nearing completion. It's reservoir will bring ocean going ships to the quays of Chongqing. By some counts already the world's biggest city, Chongqing and its population of 32 million are busy reinventing themselves. The hope is that this gritty fogbound megalopolis can do for China what Chicago did for the United States in the 19th century: open up the interior, shift the country's centre of gravity west and kick-start an economic superpower.

Within three years a motorway will run from Chongqing to Wuxi County. A new high rise county capital will be built, and White Horse Village marks the spot. The people of White Horse Village are some of the poorest citizens of this proud new city state. Until now, their only means of escape from subsistence farming was to move in search of factory of construction jobs on the coast, the muscle behind China's economic miracle.

Now the miracle is coming to them. Around 500m farmers need jobs in services and industry according to Beijing's count, and coastal cities can't absorb them. Beijing's answer is that new cities must rise in the fields instead. Within three years a motorway will run from Chongqing to Wuxi County. A new high rise county capital will be built, and White Horse Village marks the spot.

There are very detailed plans for the new county capitalChina's progress is unforgiving, the past not permitted to stand in the way of the future. Like many other nameless villages before it, White Horse Village must make the necessary sacrifice. All of its emerald rice fields are disappearing under concrete. The houses the farmers built themselves, houses they were married in, houses their children were born in, are being demolished. Even the ancestors have to go. Their very graves are being moved. I've worked on these fields for decades. It's the same land my ancestors farmed for hundreds of years. But we have to keep in step with the authorities - Xiang Ciaguo, Communist Party Secretary, White Horse Village.
Not surprisingly, feelings can run high. Last year alone, Beijing recorded 74 000 violent protests nationwide, many of them over the expropriation of land and property. Some have ended in pitched battles, arrests, even murders. The law says the land belongs to the Chinese nation not to individual farmers. There are rules governing compensation for their usage rights. But that still leaves farmers watching their livelihood and their identity disappear overnight as developers turn enormous profits. Houses are private property. According to the law, that makes them harder for the government to expropriate and the language is certainly all about persuasion, compensation and the good of the next generation. It helps that the houses of White Horse Village are to make way for White Horse High School. The plans show dormitories, concert hall and tennis courts; and where the party secretary's house stands now, the school swimming pool.

Hard work
A new revolution is taking place in this sleepy corner of western China"It's natural for us to feel sad," Xiang Ciaguo, the local Communist Party Secretary told me as dragon flies danced on the village fish pond and a ladybird crept noiselessly up a maize stalk behind him. "I've worked on these fields for decades. It's the same land my ancestors farmed for hundreds of years. But this school is an important project and we have to keep in step with the authorities. As long as we can make a good job of the compensation our living standards won't be worse than farming. Farming is really hard work." Will the farmers be persuaded to sign up for demolition? Will they get their compensation and what will they spend it on? How will they adjust to urban living and reinvent themselves as another workshop of the world?

Over the coming three years, as the demolitions gather speed and the city, school and motorway are built, Newsnight plans to follow life in White Horse Village: a portrait in miniature of China's transformation.


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