The End of Agriculture in China

Song Linsong says the countryside in Xiping village is dying i i

Song Linsong says the countryside in Xiping village is dying as a result of the Rongping chemical factory. Louisa Lim, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Louisa Lim, NPR
Song Linsong says the countryside in Xiping village is dying

Song Linsong says the countryside in Xiping village is dying as a result of the Rongping chemical factory.

Louisa Lim, NPR
Family members enjoy a 14-dish feast in honor of the return of Wu Dexiu, left, to her home village o i i

Family members enjoy a 14-dish feast in honor of the return of Wu Dexiu, left, to her hometown Tangjiazui. She moved to Shanghai nine years ago to seek a better life for her family. Scroll down to read more on her life. Andrea Hsu, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Andrea Hsu, NPR
Family members enjoy a 14-dish feast in honor of the return of Wu Dexiu, left, to her home village o

Family members enjoy a 14-dish feast in honor of the return of Wu Dexiu, left, to her hometown Tangjiazui. She moved to Shanghai nine years ago to seek a better life for her family. Scroll down to read more on her life.

Andrea Hsu, NPR
A tour group enter a "typical" Huaxi residence. i i

A tour group enter a "typical" residence. Tourists from all over China come to Huaxi to marvel at its wealth. Scroll down for more on China's "richest village." Andrea Hsu, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Andrea Hsu, NPR
A tour group enter a "typical" Huaxi residence.

A tour group enter a "typical" residence. Tourists from all over China come to Huaxi to marvel at its wealth. Scroll down for more on China's "richest village."

Andrea Hsu, NPR

For a series on life in rural China, NPR's Louisa Lim visited three different villages, each of which highlights different problems faced by China's 800 million peasant farmers.

The Price of Industry: Xiping Village

In lush, green Fujian province in China's coastal south, we travel six hours by winding, mountainous road. We're driving north from the capital of Fuzhou to a village that has lost not once, but twice, from the industrial revolution sweeping China's countryside.

Song Lingui, neat in his khaki, Mao-style jacket and black cotton shoes, is one of the local farmers who lost their land when the state requisitioned it and sold it to Rongping chemical factory.

Nationwide, the seizure of farmland is a growing problem. A recent study by Michigan State University and Renmin University indicates that land grabs have increased 15-fold over the past decade.

In this case, the villagers feel doubly unlucky. They say the factory has been poisoning their land and their village with its industrial waste. Rongping chemical factory is Asia's biggest manufacturer of chlorate, a substance used in bleach, disinfectant and matches. Its waste products include chromium 6, which can cause cancer and respiratory problems.

Song Lingui takes us to the house of the village doctor. The doctor's wife makes us a snack of two poached eggs each, swimming in a sweet viscous liquid. It's extremely good, and I feel energized after gulping mine down. Song then tells us that the farmers who have land left to farm can't sell their crops any more.

"If people know the vegetables are from Xiping village, they won't buy them, as they're worried about the pollution," Song says. Suddenly, the eggs churn in my stomach.

The doctor's house is opposite the police station, and I'm nervous about what happens if the police find us here. I don't want to get our hosts in trouble, but they are unperturbed. In one of the biggest lawsuits of its kind, the villagers have accused the factory of polluting the environment. A court has ruled in their favor.

"Even the police are scared of us now," Song says.

Having used the law as a weapon and won, the farmers have a clear sense of moral rectitude. As we sit in the doctor's house, ever more villagers turn up. Some bring legal papers and petitions, carefully marked with the thumbprints of all 1,271 plaintiffs. Others bring X- rays and doctors' reports of their own health problems. Still more produce snacks of peanut milk for us.

The struggle against the factory has obviously united the village, but as we go out to see the fields, it's clear that something even deeper has brought them together. With a growing entourage, we tramp past the factory to look at the land the farmers lost.

It was taken away four years ago, supposedly for a third phase of the factory, but nothing has been built on it yet. Now, the fields are lying unused, and as we reach it, the farmers get more and more vociferous.

"It was such beautiful land," they say mournfully. "It was so fertile. Our soil was so rich."

They forget us and start talking among themselves, remembering how good the land was, how thick the bamboo trunks used to be, how big the leaves on the trees were. I'm moved by the depth of their feeling.

I also begin to realize that in losing their land, these farmers are also losing their vocation and their identity. Now, they're mostly under-employed, some of them leaving their village to find seasonal work elsewhere. Song Lingui minds a market stall at a local town, but just watching him walking across his old fields is enough to realize that he still thinks of himself as a farmer.

The Rural Exodus: Tangjiazui Village

For the last nine years, Wu Dexiu has scrubbed, swept and scoured for a living, working in Shanghai as a housecleaner for people with money. She moved to the big city from her small village in order to seek higher-paying work.

It's a job that might breed resentment, exposing her daily to luxury far beyond her reach. But Wu has aspirations. And, being a pragmatic country girl at heart, she knows that cleaning apartments is far less tiring than planting fields under a hot sun, collecting firewood to cook meals and the never-ending aching worry of not knowing whether your harvest will be good enough to make any money this year.

She and her husband live in Shanghai, crammed into a tiny, noisy room with no amenities, but they don't mind as long as they're earning good money.

Ever more people are leaving their land in China, for a variety of reasons. Some estimates say one-quarter of China's rural population, or about 200 million people, has headed to the cities to find work, and Wu is one of those who has chanced her luck in the city.

A few days after we meet her, we accompany Wu home to Tangjiazui village in Anhui province. It's a five-hour drive west of Shanghai. For most of the journey, city and countryside seem to blend together, and a scrappy suburb of half-finished concrete houses and empty roadside restaurant lines the road.

Her village is smaller, and we drive along dirt tracks to get there, passing fields where finally we see people farming the land.

Tangjiazui seems relatively well off; most families live in spacious, two-story houses. However, as always in China, there's more to the story. Almost half the adults in the village have gone to the cities to make money that they've then plowed back into their new houses.

As we wander about the fields, Wu Dexiu she points out the vegetables.

"Those are garlic shoots," she says.

"No, they're not," her father-in-law corrects her. "They're chives."

After nine years away, it's clear she's forgetting how to farm.

Wu's family is hospitable to a frightening degree; we count 14 dishes on the table at lunchtime, most of them freshly picked from their own fields.

But they all agree that their financial well-being is due to the income Wu and her husband earn from work in the city. Farming, it seems, simply can't pay the way in today's China.

China is undergoing a radical process of transformation, whose end point can hardly be imagined. The countryside is moving to the city, while the city is encroaching on the countryside. Large swaths of China, which were once farmland, are now urban industrial sprawl.

And discontent is growing as farmland is requisitioned by the state and then sold at higher prices to build factories or high-tech zones. Through complicated local systems of taxes and fees, China's farmers have ended up subsidizing the better-off urban residents for decades, as well as providing the labor to literally build the new China.

The resulting anger is exploding into protest, with 87,000 "public disturbances" recorded by the police last year. With the wealth gap between city and countryside growing ever wider, China's leaders are beginning to fear the peasants who were supposed to be the Communist party's power base.

Recent initiatives have included scrapping a 2,000-year-old agricultural tax, promising free education and vowing to set up rural health-care collectives. But it's hard to believe these pledges can hold back the tide of rural labor flooding into the cities.

A New Industrial Revolution: Huaxi Village

When I first imagined a series about the Chinese countryside, little did I imagine I'd be looking down at rows of identical, red-roofed houses — a perfect transplant from American suburbia.

But that's just what I found in Jiangsu province's Huaxi, which prides itself on being officially named as China's richest village, an accolade they say they've enjoyed for the last 16 years. It's in Jiangsu province, about 50 miles from Shanghai. Originally home to 1,500 people, Huaxi's population is now 30,000.

The sight is so bizarre, so out of place in China, that it has an eerie, Desperate Housewives atmosphere where one imagines the perfectly manicured lawns and four-bedroom villas to be hiding sinister secrets. Was this a Potemkin village, conjured up simply for show?

In Huaxi, I see Chinese farmers living in houses with crystal chandeliers and the agricultural miracle that is a single tree growing both eggplant and tomatoes at the village's own high-tech greenhouse. (It also has its own zoo and song-and-dance troupe.)

My eyes are fairly popping out of my head even before we get to the theme park that Huaxi has built for the hordes of tourists who visit the village. This has small-scale buildings of the famous sights of the world, including Tiananmen Square perched on a hillside for better viewing, and a mini-Great Wall running along the mountain ridge. Huaxi's version of the U.S. Capitol even has the Statue of Liberty transplanted on top of it — two famous sights rolled into one.

Huaxi earns $3.7 billion a year in sales revenue. This tremendous wealth stems from the village's decision to basically abandon agriculture for industry, building factories on the farming land.

With a breezy disregard for the political winds, Huaxi's party secretary, Wu Renbao, opened the village's first factory secretly during the Cultural Revolution. His foresight gave Huaxi a head start over its competitors.

Since then, the factories have mushroomed and diversified, producing among other things, clothing, iron and steel products. The day before we visited, China's No. 4 leader, Jia Qinglin, had been touring Huaxi, just the latest in a long line of top Communist dignitaries to pay homage at this shrine to capitalism. The men who lead the country have even described Huaxi as a model to be emulated in the construction of China's "new socialist countryside," the latest campaign to reinvigorate the ailing rural areas.

But there is a darker side to Huaxi's success. There’s a sort of apartheid between the village's original 1,500 inhabitants and the newcomers. The original villagers have become wealthy beyond their wildest dreams by owning shares in the commune, which was the first commune ever to list on the Chinese stock market.

Meanwhile, the more-recent arrivals do most of the work in the factories without reaping the same rewards. The newer settlers live in conditions that are clearly worse than the original villagers, in small flats instead of large villas, and without the cars or crystal chandeliers.

Indeed, the village is a microcosm of a Chinese city, with the same inequalities and tensions. But the migrant laborers I talk to seem to accept this inequity unquestioningly, pointing out that they still earn more than they would tilling their fields.

And Huaxi, though it is an extreme case, is indicative of a trend. Throughout China, villages and townships are starting factories on their agricultural land. Large swaths of the countryside, especially in the richer southern seaboard provinces, now look like industrial wastelands. Some farmers are getting rich in the process, others are losing out.

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