View From the Wall

More Than a Concrete Jungle

While people living today in the early 21st century have little recollection of life in China in the early 1900s, most would agree with the simple summary of the situation at that time as  “an incompetent emperor trying to govern a mass of peasants loose as sand.” 

One hundred years ago the word “city” was a  symbol of luxury; it was also a vague and irrelevant term for most Chinese. In the ’50s, after the communists took power, the word “city dweller” remained as a synonym for power and privilege.  For those based in the countryside, making a trip to the nearby county seat took a great effort—let alone adventuring into bigger places like Beijing, Shanghai, Hankou (now Wuhan) or Guangzhou. An individual with some travel experience, such as having crossed a few county seats and districts, would surely win the respect and admiration of the local people.

Running water, electric lights, public transportation, cinemas, newspapers, hospitals and neon-lit tall buildings seemed to match the rural people’s dream of what heaven on earth must be like. Millions desired city life, dreamed of it and hoped fervently that one day they might become an official city dweller.  This desire has been masterfully exploited by the communists of China in their political maneuvering.  As early as the ’20s, communist guerrilla leader Mao Zedong used the slogan “The rural squeeze conquers the city.”  His Red Army, composed mostly of peasants, fought enthusiastically to take over as many cities and towns as possible.  They measured success by the number of cities that sank in front of them.

In 1958, the communists launched the “Great Leap Forward” that was aimed at “catching up to the United Kingdom and surpassing the United States.”  It hoped to turn the theory of communism into an instant reality.  The splendid slogans filled with promises that the communists used to entertain peasants included rhymes such as: “Upstairs or down, lights and phones” and “Lights without oil, plows without oxen.”  Across the entire country people were stirred up.  They went through a period of extreme excitement expecting the soon elimination of the “three major differences”:  the difference between city and country; the difference between industrial jobs and peasant labor; and the difference between blue collar and white collar jobs.

Ironically, what really happened, did not make the three major differences go away; rather some city dwellers ended up in exile in the country as a result of the failure of the “Great Leap Forward.”  Up until the ’70s, eighty percent of the Chinese population were still peasants living in the country.  The terms “city” and “city dweller” remained as remote and strange as they had always been to peasants in China.  In those days, a peasant could starve outside any city restaurant.  All restaurants requested the “liangpiao” or “grain ration coupon” in addition to cash at payment—but the “liangpiao” was the exclusive privilege of city dwellers. For four out of five Chinese, a city in China was a different world.

In 1979, Deng Xiaoping began a reform that defied anyone’s imagination.  China quietly went through a revolution:  urbanization.  In less than 20 years, the once glorified and mystified “city life” came to be the common people’s everyday lifestyle.  Even the term “city dweller” was replaced by “locals” or “out-of-towners.”  Today, every day, there are 100 million former peasants busy serving in almost every corner of China’s cities.  In Beijing, there are about three million who are labeled by Beijing locals as “Min Gong” or “out-of-town peasant workers.”  Without their services, Beijing would be cut off from its supply of fresh vegetables, fruits, meats, eggs and milk; various restaurants, hotels, bars, and discotheques would not be able to operate; many construction sites would be idle; and Beijing’s sewer system and sanitation services would not be maintained.

“Peasant workers” appeared to be the first, and most important, sign of change on the road to urbanization.  They toppled the “Baojia” (communal monitoring) system that had been imposed for several thousand years along with the “Hukou” (identification that set city people apart from peasants and dictated where individuals should live) system that has been practiced for the past 50 years. These peasant workers, who have unchained the fetters of the fields, demonstrate great economic energy in mega-cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen and in the large provincial capitals as well as in the smaller cities and towns that formerly were townships.

Other prominent changes include the sharp increase in the number of new cities and the fast expansion of older small and mid-sized cities. These have all resulted from the mushrooming of new rural-based factories and the free flow of the peasant labor force. The increase in the expansion of these cities and their numbers has helped to fill the gap between the mega-cities and the rural country-side.

Large numbers of peasants have achieved non-peasant status without leaving their province, town or township. The 1999 government statistics show that there are “only” 400 million Chinese who are now directly engaged in agricultural work.  This number will continue dropping over the next 20 years. With the program of turning county seats into cities, and city neighborhoods into separate cities, there are now nearly 400 county-seat level and district-level cities in China. Provincial capitals and independent municipalities are turned into super- or mega-sized cities. Urbanization has entered an unprecedented time of growth in China.

Then, in 1999, in the middle of the urbanization wave, the Chinese government suddenly stopped granting permits to create new cities or promote various towns to city level. It issued further restrictions on peasants migrating to cities looking for work. Is this the same government that had been eager to destroy the rural-city divide and proud of its ability to initiate and manage an urban revolution? Why has urbanization become an issue? Are there conflicts between the urbanization and the modernization of China? To answer these questions we need to know what urbanization really signifies.

For a peasant living in a poor rural area, urbanization can bring a changed official status of his “Hukou,” increased monetary gains, and equal treatment with city dwellers—in short, a better life. At the start of the ’80s, there was a popular movie titled The Life. It portrayed perfectly the peasants’ thirst for urbanization. But from the government’s point of view, urbanization means severe employment pressure along with greater demands on transportation, medical care, education, and housing facilities. It also means almost uncontrollable pollution and an ever-increasing crime rate. However, these are only surface issues; what really concerns some government leaders is the scary threat of what happens when this free flow of people meets a free flow of information. Throughout China’s history, the governing class has monopolized the supply and distribution of information. In addition to military controls and prisons, the information monopoly has been the best way to keep citizens at their own residences and to hinder them from receiving information, reflecting upon it and freely expressing or acting upon it. If the governing class had to choose between granting their subordinates freedom of action or freedom of information, they would prefer to give up their control of people’s actions. Freedom of action can be granted if necessary, they believe, but people should never be allowed to know what’s going on. This has been an effective governing tool for the last several thousand years; it was a “wisdom” of the feudal rulers found in Oriental philosophy. Now, we call it “obscurantism,” a policy that tries to keep people in ignorance.

Urbanization, as a natural result of industrial and economic globalization and information technology development, is undermining the foundation of obscurantism.  Personal telephones, cell phones and the internet are becoming the everyday companions of hundreds of millions of people in China.  As effective tools of communication, they are replacing state-controlled, one-way, propagandizing TV and radio as major sources of information for the people.  What can prevent people from thinking independently on issues such as democracy, human rights and freedom now that they are stimulated by this massive flow of new knowledge and information?  When news from around the world can spread overnight into every corner of China, the totalitarian powers that govern the country will have to figure out other means than just the military, the police and newspaper editorials to suppress its people.  When one considers the minimal infrastructure available for communication into and out of the city, however, it is apparent that this free flow of information would not be the case if it were not for the free flow of peasants physically moving in and out of the cities.

Urbanization has done more than just create concrete jungle upon concrete jungle; it has stirred up the desire for political rights within the city’s inhabitants and within its newcomers. During the revolutionary era, the communists took over cities and in so doing gained power over the whole of China. Today, the challenge before them is the dilemma of urbanization. Without it, there will be no economic growth and development, and China will continue to lag behind or even drop out of the world economic system.  On the other hand, urbanization accompanied by universal education and a global economy will surely severely weaken their totalitarian rule. What is to be done? Even as Lenin wrote What is to be Done? it will probably take another Lenin (“postmodern”) to answer that question.

Translated by Ping Dong.

Image credit: Guilin by RHTRAVELER via Flickr.
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Huo Shui

Huo Shui (pseudonym) is a former government political analyst who writes from outside China.View Full Bio