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Better homes for China's villagers

13:31, November 16, 2010

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By Li Hong

When a boom in urban property hits its peak, warranting a government intervention to rein in risks perilous to the broad economy, another boom needs to be nurtured and orchestrated in the vast rural expanse, to sustain China's momentous growth, and more importantly, for Beijing to do a job long overdue that is to change the landscape of China's countryside.

It is now high time to improve villagers' livelihood by building safe and concentrated residential buildings, and moving the relatively poor farmers to clean and tidy apartments ready with utilities including tap water, cooking gas, electricity, phone links and sewage.

Only after the country's 750 million villagers are homed in cemented and steel-wired secure houses compatible with the surrounding greenery and environment and linked to the big cities and market thoroughfares by freeways and high-speed rails, can China proudly claim it is a developed country.

Perhaps 20 or 30 years later when people look back at the trajectory of this country's rise, the decision by Premier Wen Jiabao and the State Council which he leads in 2010 -- to build clustered residential buildings for Chinese villagers, and distribute the houses to them – would be one of the greatest and most brilliant plans.

Two factors apparently have made the rationale for the new policy. One is the 2008-09 global financial crisis and a subsequent rescuing stimuli by Beijing. The other is China's long-set state policy to keep the country's arable land at no less than 120 million hectares, a red-line that cannot be traversed as China has more than 1.3 billion to feed.

To prevent the financial crisis from assailing the country, China meted out an unprecedented loose monetary policy and encouraged local governments to borrow from the banks. Out of the 9.59 trillion yuan loans issued in 2009, about 2 trillion borrowed by local governments has ended in troubled waters. As local governments are not allowed to sell bonds by China's law, they move their eyes to land sale and property development in order to refund the banks.

The central government in Beijing has come to their aid. Since each city can only use the quota of land it has been approved by the Ministry of Land and Resources, it can apply for more quotas if the city acquires more arable land. Hence, more than 20 provinces in China have launched a campaign to move villagers from their traditional courtyard houses into concentrated buildings, turning their old homes into arable land.

According to media reports, North China's Hebei Province alone plans to build 7,500 new "model" villages in three years and move about 20 percent of the sparsely dotted tenants into high buildings. It is estimated that in doing so the province will obtain 33,000 hectares of extra arable land, which consequently means that the same area of land in the vicinity of cities will be available for commercial development.

The plan is said to have been welcomed by the villagers, the local governments and the banks too. It also accelerates China's urbanization, as villagers with the means will be inspired to migrate and buy homes in the cities. For a local government, land means money. No wonder local governments are enthusiastic about the plan. Construction of the residences will create jobs and give another strong boost to the economy in the coming years.

Nevertheless, implementation of a presumed good policy needs constant oversight from Beijing. First of all, the quality of farmers' residential buildings deserves the authorities' top attention. The buildings should not be built near seismically fragile areas, including prone to stone and mud slides, and be kept at a safe distance from industrial hazards, such as poisonous gas and water and noise.

And, in the course of moving villagers to clustered residential districts, their rights and interests should not be encroached upon. The central government's directive that gives 50 percent of the income from land sales to the former tenants must be upheld. Local governments are required to keep a clear book about this round of "land enclosure", subject to routine audit.

The articles in this column represent the author's views only. They do not represent opinions of People's Daily or People's Daily Online.

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About this column

Li Hong has been a reporter and column writer, mainly on China's economy and politics.

He was graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University, and once studied in University of Hawaii and the Poynter Institute in Florida.


Dai MinJohn
Dai Min

John Milligan-Whyte and Dai Min, the executive producers and co-hosts of the Collaboration of Civilizations television series adapted by the eight books they wrote in the America-China Partnership Book Series published in English and Mandarin in 2009-2010 that created the "New School of America-China Relations." They founded the America-China Partnership Foundation and Forum in 2008 and the Center for American-China Partnership in 2005, which was recognized in 2009 as "the first American think tank to combine and integrate American and Chinese perspectives providing a complete answer for America and China's success in the 21st century."

Li HongmeiLi Hongmei

Li Hongmei, editor and columnist of PD Online.