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China's Communist Party Wants To Rebuild Countryside But First Must Demolish Homes

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

China's population has shifted to cities over the last several decades as its economy rapidly expanded. Still, more than 40% of its people continue to live in its vast countryside. And now, China's Communist Party wants to modernize rural villages by rebuilding them completely. NPR's Emily Feng reports.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Mr. Liu is a farmer from Shandong province along China's east coast. And in January, his home in a village near the city of Heze was demolished. Or, in the local lingo, it was pulled out - the same verb you'd use to describe pulling out a weed or a rotten tooth.

MR LIU: (Through interpreter) To demolish my home, about 100 security officers surrounded and subdued me and detained me.

FENG: Mr. Liu called the police. They beat and detained him. He asked to use only his last name because he fears local officials could physically hurt him again. Mr. Liu's village is one of thousands being torn down as China's countryside undergoes a massive restructuring. Local governments want to merge villages and, in their place, build new high-rise apartments. To do so, they have to tear down thousands of villages first. The reasoning behind lumping villages together is so local services can be delivered more efficiently and villagers can upgrade their housing.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOOR CLOSING)

FENG: But most residents do not want to move. One big reason is villagers have to pay the big price difference between the new apartment and the value of their original homes, which, conveniently, the state decides. Mr. Liu takes me on a tour of some of the new homes they are being sold. He says they are too far from his fields and ill-suited for farming.

LIU: (Through interpreter) Our old homes had plenty of outdoor courtyard space for storing farming equipment and grain and animals. Look how inefficiently they use the space here.

FENG: Mr. Liu walks me through the two-story white-plaster condominiums he's being encouraged to buy.

LIU: (Through interpreter) The houses look nice. That's for sure. But they cannot be used by farmers.

FENG: China's urban areas enjoy preferential access to better education, social services and jobs. As a result, the countryside has lagged behind. That's not a good look for China's ruling Communist Party, which took power with the vision of building an agricultural utopia. So beginning in 2005, China has tried to revamp village infrastructure and agricultural technology. Sanitation did improve. New roads were built, incomes rose. But soon, says Kristen Looney from Georgetown University, who studies rural governance in China, the campaigns took a different turn.

KRISTEN LOONEY: In practice and implementation, it's all become about housing.

FENG: As in demolishing old homes and requiring villages to buy new high-rise housing.

LOONEY: The construction of houses themselves generates spending because once people move into homes, they have to buy durable goods to fill those homes, and they become these new kinds of consumers.

FENG: And by consolidating sprawling villages into compact multistory buildings, local governments can also sell the freed-up land at a high margin. It's now a major revenue source for many local governments.

(CROSSTALK)

FENG: And that's why tensions came to a head this month in Shandong's Hongchuancun (ph), or Red Boat, village (ph). In late June, provincial authorities forbade forcible demolition. But a week later, bulldozers suddenly showed up, toppling electricity lines and demolishing homes. In compensation, residents of Shandong are given $285 for the year to find temporary housing, or they can live in government-provided shacks, essentially corrugated steel boxes. Some housing NPR visited was no more than huts made of mud and straw.

WANG CAISHI: (Crying, non-English language spoken).

FENG: Wang Caishi, a village resident, weeps as she recounts how in February, unidentified assailants first broke into her home, then beat her eldest son for refusing to move. Her home and the homes of two of her sons have since been demolished. Because they did not receive any compensation, she now lives in a tent next to her fields. A senior village official, Gu Xianfeng, defended the village consolidation.

GU XIANFENG: (Through interpreter) We do not demolish homes if people do not agree. Everyone signed papers last year agreeing to be consolidated.

FENG: He told NPR that ultimately, everyone's living conditions would improve. Red Boat villagers don't disagree. Like generations of rural residents before them, they just wish development could happen on their terms.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Shandong province, China. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.