Through Apo’s Eyes

An examination of state-planned urbanization in China

By Jinchen Zou


[dropcap]I[/dropcap] spent a significant part of my early childhood with my grandparents in their house in the Chinese countryside. Life in the countryside presented an interesting contrast to the bustling city life that my parents led. I remember running through the fields, catching crickets and snacking off the kumquat tree. It seemed like paradise for a little kid.

In my grandparents’ dialect, Apo is the word for grandmother and Agong for grandpa. Their house was an old but standard two story house with a concrete courtyard in the front and functional attachments to the side. Always playing outside, I watched sunlight stream through the tendrils of the luffa gourd trellis and occasionally provoked the chickens aimlessly wandering around next to the courtyard. The place has become a fixture in my mind.

When I heard that my grandparents were moving to an apartment, I was confused. Over a crackling international call line, I struggled to understand their dialect but eventually gathered that the move was facilitated by the government. At the time, I hastily jumped to the conclusion that it was compensated eviction.  Though I was not wrong, I also didn’t have the complete picture. It wasn’t until I visited that I realized that my grandparents’ move was part of a huge social change occurring throughout Chinese countryside.

As part of the government’s modernization scheme, Chinese city planners are hoping to move 250 million people into cities. According to the New York Times, China hopes to have 70% of its population in urban areas by 2025, up from the current 53%. Part of the reason for this move is rooted in the political consciousness surrounding modernization. To be urban is to be cosmopolitan, better educated, and more efficient. On the other hand, increased demand for land and the changing nature of land tenure also play a role.

Beyond political and sociological drivers of modernization, relocating smallholder farmers yield potential economic benefits as well. A concentrated population with access to centralized resources of schools, clinics, and increased job opportunities means more active participants in the mainstream economy. In introducing urban luxuries like TVs and machine washers, for example, the planners are hopeful that urbanization will drive a surge in overall household consumption. This conversion from an export-led, savings driven economy to a consumption-heavy economy would support continued rapid growth, a model which Stephen Roach, a Senior Fellow at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale and former chief economist at Morgan Stanley Asia, indicates that China strongly believes in.

On the flip side, though centrally directed, the urbanization process in practice varies across provinces and municipalities. The experiences of households also vary, some finding urban life an improvement to their previous lifestyle while others find uprooting disruptive. As much as the economy benefits from urbanization, the cost shouldered by the local government in providing services can be prohibitive. Reliant on transfer payments from the central government and experimenting with private investors, local governments are able to allocate urban residency permit (hukou) to only 35 of the 53% of the Chinese living in urban areas. This means that residents without hukou would not be entitled to government services like schools or social welfare.

Urban dwellers regard the countryside with a certain disdain and aloofness. As a result, the transition is rickety. Migrants aren’t always embraced by their new communities, and their experiences are discounted. On the road from Nanjing to Shanghai, rural houses characterized by their slanted roof with shale grey tiles and once-white concrete walls passed by in a blur outside the car window. More than once, I noticed half-demolished series of buildings. I asked the driver, who considered himself an urbanite, about it. He off-handedly asked me why I was surprised. From a utilitarian perspective, the houses were old, and the demolitions made sense. The countryside looked better without these buildings anyway, he told me.

The high-speed train network, a badge of pride for many in China, extends over the landscape. Within the span of a year, the transformation of rural areas has been drastic. As the bullet train whizzes through the fields, one cannot help but notice the piles of debris and wonder how many families were asked to move to give way to the tracks. According to Michael Pettis, a Professor of Economics at Peking University, much of the recent slowdown in Chinese growth had come from a misallocation of investment. Resembling investments in abandoned stadiums in second or third tier cities, rural infrastructure investments start off with optimistic expectations only to see the efforts ditched halfway.

The same story played out in my grandparents’ case. When I asked Apo what made them move, she alluded to the construction of “glass houses,” something she didn’t fully understand but also didn’t care much about. It turns out that Apo was talking about commercial greenhouses that a private company decided to build with the blessings of the village council. Because of bad marketing and a lack of follow-through, no farmer has bought into the facility. The fully constructed greenhouses have since been abandoned.

Was she sad that the greenhouse project turned out to be a waste? For relinquishing the house and the land, my grandparents and great-grandpa had been given two sets of apartments. It is hard for me to grasp the loss since my memories are enmeshed in Apo’s home. It was through conversations in this house that my three-year-old self began to make sense of how the world works. Furthermore, I also got a glimpse backwards in history as my grandparents told tales of the war and village politics. They taught me origami and endowed in me a sense of appreciation for their culture.

Comfortably settled in their new home, my grandparents seem quite happy to have given up their agricultural responsibilities. Sentimental things that I ask after, like the old furniture on the top floor that definitely had a story, do not concern them too much. Yet, on occasion, they’ve expressed a desire to cultivate the land again. They miss having a patch to grow vegetables. On the whole, Apo seems quite proud of their new home in Liuhe, a suburb of Shanghai. Whenever I visit, she cannot stop bragging about the new spaces.

Nevertheless, things are not all rosy. Apo hated visiting our suburban house in the US because there was no sign of human activity, no neighbors to talk to, no fellow elderly folks going for walks. Similarly, the move to the suburbs of Shanghai took her away from her network of friends. On the other hand, the cost of living in Liuhe is higher than the cost of living in the countryside, and a low state pension forces difficult choices between quality healthcare and other necessary personal expenses. Furthermore, sources of income for most migrants have shifted from working the land to low-wage labor with manufacturing nearby. To earn extra income and occupy her time, Apo has picked up separate jobs making handicrafts and clothing alterations. The move has not been easy on my grandparents, and their experience illustrates some of the complexities that migrants face.

The urban space is changing rapidly. My grandparents’ apartment complex is one of many to spring up around Liuhe. Construction is bringing to life high rises all throughout the sprawling suburb. Everywhere I went, I spotted sandbags and construction vehicles. Undoubtedly, these buildings are preparing for the inevitable flow of future rural migrants. The place does not exactly embody an idyllic suburb but rather seems like a nascent city in its own right. Yet, small plots of rapeseed flowers juxtapose towering high rises. Perhaps a new urban culture is emerging. Indicative of this incongruence, a gated community sits right behind the patch of farmland. Reminiscent of gentrification elsewhere, these faux traditional houses now house the wealthy who romanticize the simple ways of the past without acknowledging all that is lost in the process.


Jinchen Zou ’18 is a Economics and Global Affairs major in Hopper College. Contact her at .