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.”
Mr. 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 urbanization blueprint that is due to be unveiled this year would have 21 million people a year move into cities. But as is often the case in China, 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 two 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 urbanize comes despite concerns that many rural residents cannot find jobs in the new urban areas or are simply unwilling to leave behind a way of life that many cherish.
The push has the support of the highest reaches of the government, with the new prime minister, Li Keqiang, a strong proponent of accelerated urbanization. The campaign to depopulate the countryside is seen as the best way to maintain China’s spectacular run of fast economic growth, with new city dwellers driving demand for decades to come.
The effort is run by officials like Mr. Li in Xi’an, who speaks emotionally about wanting to help push China’s 700 million rural residents into the 21st century. Heirs to imperial China’s Mandarin officials, modern-day Communist Party officials like Mr. Li speak knowingly of what is best for China’s 1.3 billion people, where they should live and how they should earn a living.
“An objective rule in the process of modernization,” he said, “is we have to complete the process of urbanization and industrialization.”
One of the mantras that officials repeat about the Shaanxi project is that it is voluntary, although interviews suggest that not all of those who are being moved agree.
China’s previously largest migration project was to resettle about 1.2 million people for the Three Gorges Dam. That was mandatory: villages and towns were flooded, and people had no choice but to move. This new effort will take place over a decade or more, and those who wish to stay on the farm may do so, at least for a while, officials say. They promise generous subsidies for moving and a better standard of living, including jobs, in the new urban areas.
But in the mountains 200 miles south of Mr. Li’s offices, one of the project’s showpieces illustrates the complications he faces. The onetime village of Qiyan became a focus of national attention in 2010 when a landslide in a nearby ravine killed 29 people. Provincial leaders immediately made the disaster a case study of why the removals were necessary.
Qiyan, previously a village of 200 households, was designated a town, and its lower reaches were leveled and rebuilt with towers to house 6,000 people. Those living in the surrounding hills were encouraged to live in the valley — and not in big cities like Xi’an. The process is known as chengzhenhua, moving into towns, and has become one of the most-debated topics in China. The idea is to limit the number of megacities by keeping farmers closer to the land they farmed instead of moving them to giant cities. The problem is jobs, or the lack of them, in these areas.