Small white houses and gardens scattered over hills of lush green; long lines of sedans on the side of the road and dozens of families enjoying a Sunday afternoon. From a distance, it could be life in any western suburb. A closer look reveals grandfathers in bamboo armchairs, wives playing mahjong and men sipping green tea.
This is the new face of rural China.
Bypassing coastal candidates, the State Council named southwestern cities Chengdu and Chongqing as the latest “Special Zones” on June 10. The National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) said it was a decision that underlined a fundamentally different strategy for growth.
The assigning of new zones and thereby new riches – Tianjin leveraged its special zone status to win huge deals such as Airbus’ first China assembly line – has often been tied to Deng Xiaoping’s 1986 remark that the country should “let some people get rich first.”
Yet in southwest China, at the foot of the Tibetan plateau, the unspoken mantra is “don’t let poor people stay poor” – about 70% of the 40 million residents in the municipalities of Chengdu and Chongqing are rural dwellers.
“That’s the real picture,” said Professor Lin, an economist at the Sichuan Academy of Social Science in Chengdu. “These two cities are the typical Chinese megacities with mega-suburbs. The conspicuous conflicts between the two sides … represent the vast economic disparity throughout China.”
However, the real reason why Beijing chose Chengdu and Chongqing over their east coast rivals lies in the small white houses in Sansheng village, half an hour away from downtown Chengdu.
The village is located among flower fields that fed a generations-old industry. In 2003, when the local government sponsored a flower exposition, the villagers transformed this old local trade into a booming service industry.
They laid out tables and benches in their gardens and used fresh ingredients to cook local foods for the hundreds of families that flooded the 20,000-strong suburban town during the exposition.
The people of Sansheng had discovered that tourism could make them a lot more money than the flower trade.
After that, the changes came fast. Party officials went door-to-door to convince villagers and enterprises to participate in a tourism program. Each household received subsidies to buy furniture and paint it in a unified color and style. Museums, public toilets, golf carts and a shopping mall were erected – all of them flower-themed.
According to official statistics, 5.31 million tourists visited Sansheng in 2005 and 2006 and another 443,900 dropped by during this year’s Labor Day break. Annual per capita income has jumped from US$500 in 2002 to US$965 in 2006.
Nowadays, village households no longer grow flowers individually. Plots are planned and production managed through a new corporation, which employs local individuals or, more inventively, allows them to become shareholders.
As a result of this transformation in land tenure, people in Sansheng have stable incomes and a full set of social insurance benefits. This is standard for urban residents but for those in possession of a rural hukou – the residential registration held by families – no social insurance, low quality education and poor health care are the norm.
In Beijing, college graduates without urban residency may have to return home due to capital’s “quota for access.” A job offer from a quota-holding state enterprise or a black market hukou, which comes at a cost of up to US$8,000, are the only alternatives.
This notoriously harsh division between urban and rural China makes the developments in Sansheng all the more remarkable. This successful village experiment gave the Chengdu municipal government the confidence to become the first in China to abandon the old separated system and give everyone equal “resident” identity in 2004.
“I went to Sansheng on a regular basis and I saw the changes,” said Bi Dai, a retired worker from a state-owned factory.
“This strategy from the central government sounds like the cities are encircling the villages to urbanize them … I hope this will work.”