What's the benefit of high-rise farmers and rural appliances?
After four years in action, the “appliances to the countryside (家电下乡)” policy has just concluded. Meanwhile, the “farmers into high-rises （农民上楼）” movement of recent years, mired in intense controversy, is going full-steam ahead.
Looking at the most apparent differences between urban and rural lifestyles, these two vigorously implemented policies for “benefiting the people” have ostensibly shrunken the gap between rural and urban living.
When we see farmers living in high-rises, using hot water heaters and refrigerators, it appears on the surface as if they live much like their urban comrades, but how effectively can these “high-rised farmers（上了楼的农民）” and these “ruralized appliances（下了乡的家电）” close the gap between cities and the countryside? Can this model of urbanization, pushed forward with such haste, create the positive results that we desire?
Loss of heart
After the novelty of their new surroundings wears off, high-rise farmers find that they face a fresh tragedy: the sudden death of a precious livelihood inherited from countless previous generations.
Since ancient times, these farmers' ancestors passed on their “live off the land, live off the water” lifestyles and techniques to their descendants. The open, yet intimate neighborly relations and community ties that bound rural people together are rapidly weakening amidst jungles of concrete and steel. The traditions and customs that were woven into the rich tapestry of rural culture over hundreds and thousands of years are, like the dissolving community bonds, sinking into oblivion.
It's no surprise that people are grieving: “China's farming villages have fallen, the homeland of the Chinese people is fading away, the traditional culture of China's countryside is declining, China's idyllic pastures are disappearing...China's countryside has lost its soul”.
And the conclusion of the “appliances to the countryside” movement does not imply that it can gallantly ride off toward the sunset. Rather, the close of the policy serves only to raise new alarm bells. Now that the “government–led market-based activity” is over, rural demand has shifted from appliances themselves to the maintenance and repair of ruralized appliances. Unfortunately, when it comes to the provision of such services, large stretches of the countryside are completely in the dark.
Is this urbanization? Who or what needs to be urbanized? Do farmers desire the lifestyles of city folk? What do they really want?
High rises and appliances are only the most superficial characteristics of city life; they do not even begin to approach the essence of urban existence. Cities integrate diverse resources and provide new resource allocation mechanisms that erase old hierarchies and provide an array of novel opportunities for individual and societal development.
These high-rise farmers with their ruralized appliances are still oceans apart from the cities' diverse resources and allocation mechanisms.
Farmers have not magically transformed into urbanites by moving to high rises and using home appliances. They still do not have the benefits and special access that urbanites take for granted, and they are farther than ever from breaking through the social hierarchies that keep them from enjoying equal treatment and opportunities.
Uprooted, stripped of their ability to live off the land; and now denied the resources and opportunities of urban areas, these farmers are stuck in a no-man's land; a place where they still can not reach the sky, but can no longer grasp the earth. They are a new class of semi-urban poor.
In terms of self-respect and the ability to sustain themselves, the distance between urbanites and rural farmers has never been greater, and continues to increase.
The real beneficiaries
The force behind the effort to “high-rise” China's farmers is the promise of enormous profits. According to scholar Li Jinjun: “This wave of constructing new rural villages, integrated planning of cities and villages, urbanizing the countryside – this movement to wipe out rural life – has very specific goals: expansion of the land area for construction and increasing financial gains from real estate.”
As for the ruralization of appliances, the goal is also clear: increase domestic demand for consumer goods. But when supervision is lax and implementation is driven by profit, these policies become no more than another thinly-veiled guise for those with privileged access to make a quick buck off of the government, and ultimately, China's taxpayers.
This plundering of the land for profit has forfeited farmers' birthright to their land, consumed what little money they had just begun to save, exploited what was left of their labor, and destroyed their confidence in the government. In many areas, farmers who had just barely clawed their way out of poverty have once again been pulled back into that age-old cycle. Society now faces a new type of unfairness, a new set of hidden dangers.
Amid the mess of high rises and appliances, the foundation of Chinese society is being shaken. Urban areas have begun to surround the countryside in this ancient agricultural nation with many people and little land. What will become of this place?