Escaping the Cities

In the 1960’s and 1970’s the Chinese government sent millions of city dwellers “down to the countryside,” many of them students and intellectuals. The purpose was ostensibly to have them learn about hard work and revolutionary fervor from the peasants. It was also a way to get them out of the cities so they wouldn’t (continue to) cause trouble. When the policies began to change in the 1980’s, many of these “sent down youth” were rehabilitated and allowed to return to the cities.

In the 1990’s, as China’s economy was taking off, it was the peasants themselves who began moving to the cities. They were needed as the labor force to build the urban metropolises that we see today. This urbanization has seen a caused demographic shift. In 1984, the year I went to China, 80% of the population lived in the countryside, and 20% lived in the cities. By 2011 the ratio was 50/50.

To be sure, China’s cities offer jobs and opportunities that don’t exist in the countryside. But as the cities grow (Beijing is now 20+ million), many urbanites are beginning to lose interest in the busy-ness of life, not to mention the traffic and pollution. Their response is to get away from it all and voluntarily go “down to the countryside.”

China File recently posted a short film, titled “Down to the Countryside,” about an urban family that made this choice: Here’s the description:

The world has heard much of late about the scale and scope of China’s mass migration from the poor rural countryside to its booming cities. Some think the number of these migrant workers will soon reach some 400 million souls. They have created massive new urban megaplexes like Chongqing, which now has a population of close to 30 million.

But such precipitous, rapid, and massive urbanization inevitably causes reactions. And in this beautifully shot short film by Leah Thompson and Sun Yunfan, we are introduced to one urban “back-to-the-lander,” Ou Ning, who for all the understandable reasons has moved his family from Beijing to the countryside in the storied Huizhou region of Anhui Province. The film is a lovely evocation of how urban malaise has led one city intellectual to forsake the increasingly polluted, expensive, hectic, and crowded capital in search of a quieter, cleaner, and more sylvan setting for his family.

Whether he will prove a harbinger of things to come in China is as yet uncertain. But what does seem beyond question is that as China’s enormous and environmentally hazardous cities grow ever larger and more polluted, Ou Ning’s pioneering escape will become a tempting model for many others to follow. —Orville Schell

Here is the film. (note: if you receive this post by email, click here to view the film.)

Related Post:

Where Have All the Villages Gone? 


Where Have All the Villages Gone?

When I first went to China in the mid-1980’s the rural/urban population ratio was 80/20. Today, after three decades of urbanization, that ratio is roughly 50/50.

Urbanization in China comes in two forms, either by peasants moving from the countryside into the cities or the cities expanding to swallow up the countryside.

One of the by-products of China’s urbanization is the emptying out of the countryside, leaving behind villages with no more people. Last week The Telegraph ran a story about the vanishing villages of China. Visiting a dying village, reporter Tom Phillips writes:

Five generations of the Qiao family have called this isolated rural village home.

They came in the dying days of China’s Qing dynasty and looked on from their mountaintop perch as civil war, revolution, hunger and finally massive economic change swept the nation.

Now, however, the Qiaos’ days in Maijieping are numbered as tens of thousands of Chinese villages are driven towards extinction amid what has been dubbed the greatest human migration in history.

“The younger generations find life here too hard,” sighed 58-year-old Qiao Jinchao, who is one of only four remaining residents in a now eerily deserted village that was once home to 140. “Once they have gone out and seen more, they aren’t willing to return.”

Here is the video clip that accompanied the article:

Since so much of the growth of the church in China has taken place in the countryside, urbanization and the de-population of villages is having an impact on the church. What happens to the churches in these vanishing villages? Where do the urban migrants worship in the cities? How are rural Christians adapting to urban life? These are only some of the issues facing the church in an era of urbanization.

To read more about how urbanization is impacting the church in China, check out these resources:

The Transformation and Renewal of the Structure of Chinese House Churches (ChinaSource, March 2011)

A Church on the Move (ChinaSource, December 2004)

Migrant Cities (ChinaSource, December 2004)

China’s urbanization means problems for the church (UCA News)

Impact of urbanization on churches in China (

Management issues in the rural church (Chinese Church Voices)

(Note: this post was originally published on the ChinaSource Blog.)

Reading Assignment — Urban Migration

Imagine, if you will, every single person in the United States packing up everything and moving — not just to a different house, but to a different city or state.  Pretty hard to imagine, right?

But that’s exactly what’s happening in China today, as urbanization continues at an unprecedented pace.

David Pierson, of The Los Angeles Times, describes what this means for China in an article titled “China Grapples with Mass Migration from Villages to the City:”

It’s been called the largest migration in human history: An estimated 320 million Chinese will leave small villages and rural counties to start new lives in cities over the next decade and a half.

It’s the equivalent of everyone in the United States packing their belongings and changing addresses.

Urbanization is the linchpin to China’s development. It raises standards of living and encourages residents to become consumers.

But as Tom Miller describes in his upcoming book, “Urban Billion” (Zed Books), the process thus far has been messy and uneven.

Pollution is choking Chinese cities. Breakneck growth has sapped urban areas of their character. Millions of new city dwellers work at low-wage jobs and don’t have access to social services.

“Simply moving a farmer into a flat does not make him an economically significant consumer,” writes Miller, the Beijing-based managing editor of the China Economic Quarterly. “On the contrary, if policymakers do not extend social welfare to migrants and fail to integrate them into the urban economy, greater urbanization could merely create a gargantuan urban underclass.”

From what I can see this urban underclass already exists.

As they say, read the whole thing.