In China over the past 30 years, tens of millions of young country folk have migrated to the country’s megacities to work.
They leave behind their elderly parents and grandparents to care for their children. As the exodus gathers pace, empty houses decay, schools close, and local shops go out of business.
In a bid to find a solution, many provinces have been emptying and demolishing underpopulated villages and building new towns to house displaced residents in a scheme known as “village consolidation”, the Economist reports.
The bonus for the authorities is that the freed-up land can then be turned into arable cropland. This is desperately needed in China, which has 20% of the world’s population but less than 10% of its arable land.
By creating alternative arable land, local governments can sell greenfield sites near cities to developers without reducing their province’s stock of farmland, which is strictly limited by central government. Profits are substantial and often difficult to trace.
The farmers are powerless to protect their villages from rapacious officials. If they refuse to leave, the local bureaucrats arrive with their enforcers. Reports of beatings are common, and even petrol bombs have been thrown into homes.
Last year Shandong province launched a “village consolidation” programme, leading to mass protests by villagers and outrage in the state-controlled press. China’s leader, Xi Jinping, has long insisted that the “rural revival” must not involve “mass demolition and mass building”, but corrupt local officials know the planning processes will be murky and profits will be huge.
In China, if an official decides a villager must move, he has no choice.
Another problem for farmers is that the Communist Party calls rural villages “collectively owned”. Shady officials interpret that as meaning they can seize whole villages when they like and kick the elderly inhabitants out, whether they have a completed “consolidated village” to go to or not.
Many are calling for villagers to be given clear rights to their homes and then be allowed to sell them freely, as city dwellers have been allowed to do since the 1990s.
Local governments could then buy them legally if they wish, at a price fairly negotiated with the owners.
The law should protect the weak from powerful men with big bulldozers, not vice versa.