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Leaving the fields behind, villagers become city slickers

By Wang Hao, Tan Yingzi and Luo Wangshu in Chongqing  (China Daily)

08:50, June 07, 2013

"When I leave the apartment, I will always remember to turn off the gas," said Xu Chaohui in a serious voice.

Xu is not a 5-year-old in the process of learning household safety. Rather, she is a 63-year-old former farmer who has spent most of her life on a farm on the northeastern outskirts of Chongqing, the huge municipality in Southwest China.

Before September, Xu had never cooked with gas, but when her family moved into an apartment in a 20-story building, she changed from farmer to new urban citizen.

To better adapt to her new identity, Xu, along with 1,686 neighbors, signed up for a citizenship program in the community where they learned the does and don't of urban living. Home safety, including how to use the gas properly, is one of the new skills she has had to learn.

Like Xu and her neighbors, millions of Chinese farmers are being granted urban residence permits, known as hukou, during the process of urbanization. However, it's difficult for the middle-aged and seniors to adapt smoothly to life in the city, so the local government encouraged the new communities to offer citizenship training in an attempt to aid the transition.

'Urban skills school'

The intensive, week-long "Urban skills School" program Xu attended in Hehe community was initiated by the administrative committee of Chongqing Liangjiang New Area.

The topics included safety in the city, counseling to help the new residents adapt to the change in lifestyle, health and financial management.

The program started in October and lasted until June, providing guidance for 1,687 new urban residents.

Each student was given a subsidy of 30 yuan ($5) for attending the program and the sponsor, Longxing Construction Investment Cooperative, spent 200 yuan on each student, investing 340,000 yuan in total.

Many towns and communities in a number of provinces and regions have offered similar programs to new urban citizens.

In 2010, the central government called for an improvement in rural residents' skills and abilities to help provide the human resources for urbanization.

Farmers have left their land and single-story homes, given up their old lifestyles and moved into high-rises. Now they buy their food and groceries at supermarkets and dress like city dwellers. However, the surface change has been easier to achieve than entrenched habits and identities.

"Like me, my neighbors had never lived in a high-rise before. Some stored items on their balconies and sometimes things accidentally fell off. It was very dangerous, and people were likely to get hurt. But, as we weren't aware of the dangers, we simply didn't consider them," said Xu.

For Yang Daguo, a 69-year-old Hehe community resident, the change in lifestyle was initially baffling. "I lived in a village for nearly 70 years. I am used to throwing my household trash out onto the land and I paid little attention to a specific bucket or trash can."

Zhu Yang, dean of the continuous education and management department at Chongqing Nanfang Translators' College at Sichuan International Studies University, was one of the teachers at the community program. He delivered lectures on civic civility and harmony, and incorporated examples into the training.

"Some cases can be trivial. A student told me that he and his family almost had a fight with the property management staff over a problem with the gas. I discovered that they just lacked experience in dealing with property management. They had never before shared a general switch for gas or electricity with a dozen other residents. On their farms, the switch was for their use alone, so it took time for them to understand that other people were also allowed access to the communal switch," he said.

"During the first session, I went to the restroom next to the lecture hall only to find that all the toilet paper was missing. I shared that with my class, telling the students that in public bathrooms, people usually only take one sheet of toilet paper at a time. These are basic values for city dwellers, but few of the new urban residents had ever used a public restroom before," he said. When he later saw one student attempting to dissuade another from grabbing all the toilet paper, urging him leave some for the next user, Zhu was pleased to see his message had started to hit home.

He also taught the students to prepare financial plans. The farmers made a lot of money when they sold their land to the government. However, as most of them had never had a large amount of cash before, they had to be taught how to use it wisely.


Hehe community is home to nearly 100,000 new urban citizens, all from the same area. They were each paid around 86,000 yuan for their land. Each member of the same household was entitled to buy 30 square meters of a new apartment, meaning that a family of four could buy a 120-sq-m apartment in the community or two 60-sq-m apartments.

The government provided a subsidy of 2,400 yuan for each sq m, and residents can buy apartments in Hehe community at 1,900 yuan per sq m.

That means each farmer made 101,000 yuan, even after buying an apartment.

"They don't know how to manage their assets. Some may go wrong by gambling or visiting prostitutes. To keep them away from temptation, I told them to make proper investments, such as small businesses," Zhu added.

Wu Guihai, a government employee who has 13 years' experience of working with farmers, taught the new residents how to adapt to their new urban identities.

"I know their needs. Middle-aged and senior new urbanites mostly live on social assistance grants. They don't need to work for a living, but they don't have the skills required for city life. I try to show them how important it is for them and their children to work, instead of sitting at home and receiving social benefits forever. I don't want them to feel useless," he said.

Meanwhile, few of the former rural residents had ever seen an elevator. Yang Zhuhui, 41, showed them how to use one safely.

'The small cabin'

"One lady in her 80s, who lived on the 18th floor, didn't know how 'the small cabin' could carry her up and down. She told me that she felt dizzy when she used it and so I always accompanied her in the elevator until she got used to it."

After the training the community became tidier, said Jiang Xinquan, a 70-year-old resident, who used to own a small business in a nearby village.

He said he was quite content with the training he received. "For an old man like me, studying was very difficult. But the teachers were very patient, and I learned a lot, such as how to handle relationships with my neighbors, how to eat healthily and how to care for the local environment."

When he moved into the community in September 2012, the area was full of garbage because the new residents had no idea about keeping the place clean and tidy.

"After the training program, the environment in the community was much improved," he said.

These citizenship programs, to some extent, help to smooth and accelerate the transition process from rural to urban citizens, said Wang Guixin, a professor at Fudan University who specializes in urbanization.

However, he believes that the psychosocial and identity issues - the farmers have experienced great difficulties in reconciling themselves to their new urban identities - have been formed over a long period.

"On the one hand, farmers should learn to be urban social civilians. On the other, native urbanites should be more tolerant of their new neighbors. Instead of labeling and discriminating against them, urban citizens should learn to see the new residents as part of the city," Wang said.

Yuan Guilin, professor of rural education at Beijing Normal University, said it's important to judge the value of the training by its real-life effect.

"How the new urban citizens behave after the training is the key to evaluating it," he said.

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