Li Yongping sat in a darkened conference room, his face illuminated by an enormous map of southern Shaanxi province projected on a wall-size screen. He nodded to an assistant and the screen split: the province on one side and a photograph of a farmer on the other.
“These people are moving out of here,” he said, gesturing to the mountains that dominate the province’s south. “And they’re moving here,” he said, pointing to the farmer’s newly built concrete home. “They are moving into the modern world.”
Li is directing one of the largest peacetime population transfers in history: the removal of 2.4 million farmers from mountain areas in the central Chinese province of Shaanxi to low-lying towns, many built from scratch on other farmers’ land. The total cost is estimated at $200 billion over 10 years.
It is one of the most drastic displays of a concerted government effort to end the dominance of rural life, which for millenniums has been the keystone of Chinese society and politics. While farmers have been moving to cities for decades, the government now says the rate is too slow. An urbanisation blueprint that is due to be unveiled this year would have 21 million people a year move into cities. As is often the case in China, however, formal plans only codify what is already happening. Besides the southern Shaanxi project, removals are being carried out in other areas, too: in Ningxia, 350,000 villagers are to be moved, while as many as 2 million transfers are expected in Guizhou province by 2020.
All told, 250 million more Chinese may live in cities in the next dozen years. The rush to urbanise comes despite concerns that many rural residents are not ready for the move, lacking the skills to find jobs in the city or simply unwilling to leave behind a way of life that many cherish.
The effort is run by officials like Li in Xi’an, who speaks emotionally about wanting to help push China’s 700 million rural residents into the 21st century. “An objective rule in the process of modernisation,” he said, “is we have to complete the process of urbanisation and industrialisation.”
One of the mantras that officials repeat about the Shaanxi project is that it is voluntary. Previously, China’s largest migration project was to resettle about 1.2 million people for the Three Gorges Dam. That was mandatory. The new