A farmer from Shandong province along China’s east coast, Liu recalls how during Chinese Lunar New Year in January, he went out for a walk and came home to discover local officials preparing to demolish his home.
When he called the police on the demolishers, they arrested him instead, saying that the police would “assist the work of the local government.”
“To demolish my home, about 100 security officers surrounded and subdued me, and detained me,” Liu said on a recent visit to his village, Liushuanglou, near the city of Heze. He was released from detention the next day.
Like most of the more than three dozen Shandong residents NPR interviewed, Liu requested only his family name be used because he fears being physically threatened again by the authorities.
After building some of the world’s largest cities, erecting entire districts of gleaming high rises in the span of a few years, China is now kicking plans into high gear to overhaul tens of thousands of its rural villages.
But Liu and other residents allege that the authorities are coercing them into signing away their older, much larger farm homes, demolishing them by force if necessary and not adequately compensating residents for their homes. The residents say the new, smaller houses or high-rise apartments they are being moved into are either too far from their fields, too expensive or ill-suited for their needs as farmers.
“Our leaders have been distanced from us regular people at the bottom. They do not know our basic needs. They are completely cut off from us,” Liu said.
Thousands of villagers in Shandong, meanwhile, have already been rendered effectively homeless since local governments began forcibly clearing away houses last year.
The ongoing mass demolition and consolidation of villages scattered across China has become so common that residents colloquially refer to the initiative as “pulling” villages out from the ground, much like one would pull out a rotten tooth or a weed.
China’s ruling Communist Party took power in 1949 with the vision of transforming the country into an agricultural utopia. It sees rural development as key to its pledge to eliminate poverty by the end of this year.
Officials say lumping far-flung villages together streamlines administrative functions, enabling efficient delivery of services and infrastructure, while allowing villagers to upgrade their housing. It has also enabled local governments to sell cleared land for commercial use.
But in Shandong province, this overhaul has taken on an extreme form as entire villages are temporarily wiped off the map. The province still has nearly 50 million of its residents, about half of Shandong’s population, living in villages that house only a few hundred people each.
The provincial government slated thousands of villages to be demolished and consolidated by the end of this year.
Some residents have been reduced to living in government-provided shacks while they wait for new housing to be built. Others have built mud and straw huts or use a 2,000 yuan ($285) yearly subsidy municipal authorities hand out to rent a temporary home.
“The government does not care whether you live or die. They only care about whether you sign an agreement to let them demolish your home,” said Wang Caishi, 66, a resident of Shandong’s Red Boat Village.
She and her husband, who both work as farmers and earn extra income by recycling trash, now live in tents on the edges of their fields as they wait for compensation for their destroyed house.
Demolished with good intentions
The Communist Party says it has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, many of whom have moved into cities. Bringing those gains to the 600 million residents of China’s countryside has proved difficult.
One idea that has gained traction is to relocate villagers into denser communities, reducing the fragmentation of agricultural plots that has stymied commercial farming and rural development.
“Rural consolidation has been going on kind of rapidly in many parts of China for at least a decade,” said Alexander Day, an associate professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles who studies Chinese rural policy. “The intent is to pull these people out of very small villages and put them into these new, concentrated communities. It also allows for the development of land.”
In the early 2000s, provinces also rolled out plans to revamp village infrastructure, social services and agricultural technology. Sanitation improved in many villages. New roads were built. Average incomes rose.
Rural policies initially aimed to upgrade roads and farming techniques. But they quickly morphed into all-out campaigns to relocate villagers.
“In practice and implementation, it’s all become about housing,” said Kristen Looney, an associate professor at Georgetown University who researches Asian rural development.
In 2008, the municipal government of Dezhou, another Shandong city, announced plans to squeeze 8,000 nearby villages that fall under its administration into 1,000 larger communities. When Dezhou quickly ran out of funds to front the cost of building new housing, it dropped the project partway through; about 10% of villages were demolished and their occupants rehoused.
The coastal province of Zhejiang has won plaudits for merging more than 27,000 small villages beginning in 2003.
Looney said the emphasis on new housing reflects China’s drive to diversify its manufacturing exports-reliant economy to include more consumer activity.
“The construction of houses themselves generates spending. And once people move into homes, they have to buy durable goods to fill those homes and they become these new kinds of consumers,” she said.
In the process of transplanting villages en masse, local governments also accrue a valuable resource: the land underneath those villages.
By moving villagers from sprawling farmhouses into smaller apartments in multistory buildings, local governments can consolidate land and sell it at a high margin to commercial property developers. The profits also incentivize land grabs from villagers. “That is why land is such a contentious issue in China and probably the number one source of state-society conflict in the country,” Looney said.
This year, the Shandong city of Liaocheng wants to merge 6,260 villages into 1,000 larger communities. The vacated land relinquished by rural residents, will in turn be contracted for third-party commercial use, such as agritourism and pig farming. Qingdao, a major port city in Shandong that sits by the Yellow Sea, also announced in January that more than 500 surrounding villages will be taken down.
Selling land is a major revenue source for nearly all Chinese local governments. Cash-strapped and often heavily indebted from construction projects, local governments reached a record volume of land sales last year as China’s economic growth began to slow.
But by “fantasizing about the riches” that land development brings, He Xuefeng, an expert on rural China who teaches at Wuhan University, wrote last month, lower-level government officials “cannot help but scheme about how to take rural land from villagers, thus bringing about an unnecessary ordeal to both the countryside and its residents.”
“Torn down without permission”
Among corn fields at the edge of city of Heze, Hongchuancun or Red Boat Village sits on about 5,000 acres to be razed this year to make way for concrete apartment complexes. Hundreds of homes have already been torn down.
In late June, area residents thought they had been spared when the provincial government forbade demolition without consent, following heavy criticism.
But the destruction has accelerated, according to more than two dozen villagers who spoke to NPR.
Barely a week after demolition ban, bulldozers suddenly ripped up the only paved road and tore down several more homes. The bulldozers also toppled electricity poles, leaving residents with no power and Internet, and blocked incoming traffic with a pile of rubble. Dozens of residents told NPR they believe this was retribution for 80% of them refusing to move last year.
“All the houses here are torn down without our permission,” resident Li Aihua told NPR. “If you do not agree, they use all sorts of methods to coerce you.”
Li, who is in her late 50s, said village officials cut the water lines to her house last October after she refused to let them demolish her home, now riddled with cracks in the outer walls from nearby construction. In March, someone broke into her house and smashed all her furniture.
Another resident described how unidentified assailants broke the locks on her home this February. A fruit vendor surnamed Wang said a week after refusing to sign an agreement to move, health inspectors suddenly visited his store to see if he had been selling expired goods. Villagers say they formed a neighborhood watch group due to the number of mysterious assaults in Red Boat.
“Should be decided by the people”
Red Boat Village officials denied wrongdoing and claimed people were voluntarily moving out of their old residences. “We do not demolish homes if people do not agree. Nearly everyone signed papers last year agreeing to be consolidated,” said Gu Xianfeng, a village party cadre.
When reached for comment, the Shandong provincial government said the process behind village merging “should be decided by the people,” but acknowledged the policy had raised some concerns. “Shandong is currently looking back at the construction of beautiful and hospitable villages, so as to further increase public satisfaction and happiness.”
Three Heze City-adjacent villages said some of them agreed last year to put down an initial deposit for new houses that they were told would cost no more than 30,000 yuan ($4,300) after selling their original residence.
But then the price inched upwards. The new government-built apartments will now cost 80,000-100,000 yuan ($11,400-14,300) more than the compensation villagers would receive. Residents said compensation for their demolished homes averaged to no more than one half of what they said their original homes had cost to build.
County and village officials defended the price differential to NPR, saying the new houses were being sold at a break-even cost to cover construction materials and labor.
About 40 of Red Boat Village’s residents now live in rows of corrugated tin shacks — housing provided by the state to those whose homes are now gone. Several residents had built rudimentary mud and straw huts on the edge of their fields after their brick houses were torn down this spring.
“I cannot afford to buy a new apartment, even if it is built, so I can only live in such a [mud] house,” said one woman, who declined to give her name. “If the government knows I am criticizing them, they might take away this house too.”
Amy Cheng contributed research.