Maoism, it seems, is back. Residents of Chongqing, western China’s largest city, are busy singing red songs and glued to revolutionary propaganda on prime-time television. Or so Bo Xilai, Chongqing’s slickly charismatic Party boss, would have us believe.
The truth is rather more prosaic. Old folk in every Chinese city routinely gather to blast out the revolutionary songs of their youth, and heroic Communists have been a TV staple for the past 30 years. Chongqing’s return to red values is little more than a political ploy by Bo to shore up support from Party leftists, as he attempts to muscle his way onto the Politburo Standing Committee.
Behind the Maoist hoopla, Bo has more substantive leftist policies to worry about than television shows. In 2007, Chongqing was chosen to pilot land and legal reforms to integrate rural residents into urban communities and narrow the yawning wealth gap between urban and rural residents. Confident after smashing the mafia gangs that once ran the city, Bo and sidekick city mayor Huang Qifan publicized an ambitious strategy – the so-called “Chongqing model” – which they say can be extended to other cities nationwide.
Chongqing plans to move 10 million rural residents into cities by 2020, pushing its urbanization rate up from 50% to 70%. In so doing, it hopes to raise rural incomes from a paltry 28% of the urban average to a more respectable 40%. Local officials also promise to build 40 million square meters of subsidized public housing by 2012, enough to house approximately 2.4 million people. Mayor Huang says the eventual goal is to house 30-40% of all urban residents in public rental units, which people would be allowed to buy at subsidized prices a few years after moving in. No other locality in China has such ambitious goals.
Conditions in the dark slums of Chongqing’s Nanjimen district, just a 10-minute walk from the luxury stores of the central business district, show why these radical social policies are deemed necessary. Rubbish is strewn through the dank narrow lanes, which are lined with dilapidated houses. Many of these houses are rented to rural migrants at night, who pay RMB3 per night to sleep on makeshift beds constructed from bamboo poles.
Nanjimen is slated for demolition this summer, and the migrants will be forced to move out. But local officials say new public housing will be open to anyone who can prove a steady income and six months of social insurance payments, irrespective of residency status. This contrasts with other large Chinese cities, where public housing will only be available for residents, not migrant workers.
Chongqing’s leaders hope this enlightened approach will help persuade farmers to give up their land for a new life in the city. Unfortunately, many rural residents do not want to leave their land, and officials are already turning to coercion to meet their targets.
Regardless, many rural migrants will not be able to afford public housing, and the local economy will struggle to create enough jobs for them. Moreover, Chongqing’s reforms will not easily be imitated by other local governments – especially its leaders’ strong-arm fundraising tactics. Huang’s latest wheeze is to force local state-owned enterprises to subsidize the creation of 60,000 “micro-enterprises” to employ laid-off workers, unemployed graduates and new urban residents.
For now, Bo and Huang can afford to throw their weight around. But the “Chongqing model” is less a template for national economic and social development than a powerful exercise in local