Past, Future, and Everything In Between: New Year's Deep in the Heart of China
“Hens. Of course. Can’t you tell?”
Twilight descends and I’m crouching next to a crate full of chickens that are apparently hens. The sky is now dark gray, but has been gray, in various shades, all day—thick with an admixture of overcast weather and the pollution of development. On my side, the middle-aged woman who owns the hens boils water in a large, thoroughly-singed steel wok. The wok hangs over an open flame. She crouches down and lifts the saucer-like cover. Steam rushes past her worn face, a momentary relief from the February cold.
“Not yet,” she says in heavy dialect. “Almost.”
We’re on the site of an abandoned iron factory, in Xuzhou, Jiangsu Province, just along the consensus dividing line between north and south China. The scene has a slight post-apocalyptic aura. Charred bricks and twisted pieces of metal. Crumbling smoke stacks. Deep craters with no apparent purpose. And persistent gray skies that turn the sun dull white and the stars into fiction.
Ringing the abandoned factory are seemingly endless blocs of corrugated tin-roofed two-story complexes—something like a dubious roadside motel at grand scale. The factory and the apartments are entirely unrelated. Humans, mostly above 45 or under 10, mill around in thick dusty jackets. The men chat and laugh and pass around cigarettes. The women chat and laugh. The dirt alleys between and around the blocs are strewn with all manner of agricultural paraphernalia: dead tractors, chickens, hoes and shovels, bags full of feed. The faint, mystical wheeze of an erhu—kind of like a Chinese fiddle—can be heard from a wedding down the street.
This is the price of change.
Urbanization is an official policy of the Chinese government. Conceptually, it’s not all that different from the industrialization and urbanization hitherto experienced by every developed country in the world. China does, after all, have a well-established reputation as an imitator of success. What sets Chinese development apart is speed and relentlessness. This is chips-on-the-table, cards-up development.
The primary motivation for urbanization: efficiency. The premise: farming villages are an epic waste of land and resources. Agriculture should be carried out on an industrial, not individual, scale. Correspondingly, people living in cities take up less space, spend more money, and are way easier to provide basic services to. So, take a country that in 1980 was 20% urban and 80% rural and flip those metrics around. Do it in 40 years. Do it in the largest country in the history of the world.
Much of this flip has happened naturally, through subtle deployment of the invisible-hand, but much of it has been guided by a much more visible hand.
In most developed countries, there is a history of both voluntary and non-voluntary internal migration. Consider the American Great Migration. Poor black sharecroppers moved en masse to Northern cities. This was partly because of segregation and the South being an overall shit place to live for people with black skin but mostly because the factory jobs were better than the glorified slavery of post-war life in the South. If they didn’t want to go, they didn’t necessarily have to. But they often wanted to.
You could also consider actual slavery or moments like the Trail of Tears for examples of non-voluntary American migration.
In China, this has been underway for decades. Villages transform into factory towns. Millions of young people flood these sweatshops to make Nike shoes and Gap boxers. Their standards of living increase. Cities become prosperous. Factory workers become service workers. Villages continue to empty. Massive, endless blocs of skyscraping apartments spring up in urban areas, big and small. The rural-urban inversion moves along nicely.
But not everybody can leave. Not everybody wants to leave.
The “village” where I am, crouching over a boiling wok as caged hens squawk at the invisible stars, is a product of involuntary urbanization. The original village, with large family courtyard style homes and vast plots of individual cropland was broken down a few years ago. The residents and their belongings were relocated to this abandoned iron factory and moved into what used to be ironworker housing. Their land is being used more efficiently than it was when they farmed it—the agricultural industrial complex at work. The ultimate endgame is to provide them with better housing, closer to an urban center. They are compensated something for their trouble—given a share of farm profits—but is it enough? That’s a question only they can answer.
Seeing it up close is not a particularly joyful experience, but I do find it necessary to remind myself that China has 1.4 billion people and country-scale societies do not operate in a vacuum. Opinions can’t be cherrypicked. Prosperity does not have to be a zero-sum game, but it will never be perfect. The whole scene is somewhat inconceivable to modern Western audiences—especially liberal ones. But, of course, Native Americans didn’t always live on reservations.
I enter one of the apartments, the home of my friend’s grandmother—an 80-year-old widow who had lived in the village her entire life. Her one-room quarters are crammed with life's accumulated possessions. A single lightbulb casts a dim blaze. The 80s-era TV shows the news. Xi Jin Ping wishes his countrymen a happy Chinese New Year. The grandmother is heavily bundled, only her tiny, ancient face poking out. She rocks on her bed, clutching a fat walking stick/cane. She is surrounded by her family, something that only happens once a year, when people return home for the holidays. The middle-aged neighbor comes in and tells her that I confused her hens for chickens. They laugh. I laugh.
It’s dark by the time we leave grandma. There’s a wedding on the other side of the complex. We weave through the tight bloc alleys and through remnants of industrialization. The ceremony has finished and a band plays on a makeshift stage—everything is makeshift—in the middle of a large parking lot. Their sound is reminiscent of a ragtag Klezmer ensemble, a chaotic, tinny buzz that coalesces into something surprisingly pleasant. Kids flail around in the way kids the world over flail around on the dance floor. Empty dishes and spent bottles of baijiu idle on tables. As the party coincides with Chinese New Year, the atmosphere is especially festive. Children buy KongMing Lanterns (mini-hot air balloons) and send them into the night, wide eyes trailing the glow. Fireworks burst. The Year of the Dog has arrived. Life—as life tends to do—goes on.
People often ask me what China is like. Of course, this is an impossible question. The world’s largest country. Thousands of years of history. Tropical islands and Himalayan mountains. Happy people. Sad people. Tall people, short people, others of average height. In this strange village, I found an imperfect metaphor. If the entire Chinese nation must be defined, it can best be described as in flux. People have far more than they’ve ever had. Children subsidize parents. Entire villages are moved into skyscrapers. Millenia of tradition spar with rapid global ascension. There’s a constant struggle to squeeze deep-rooted culture into the demands of a modern economy. The change is at once exciting and painful and unfair and revolutionary. No one knows exactly how it’s going to turn out, or if it’s right or wrong. The only certainty is that everywhere you go, it is, without question, happening.