China's 11th Five-Year Plan (2006-2010) called for the building of socialist new villages as a major historical mission in the nation's modernization process. Today, a decade after launching this agenda, it has become clear that socialist new villages are not just a political slogan as some observers initially thought; they are affecting large sections of the PRC's rural population in profound and lasting ways.
In many rural areas the breadth and pervasiveness of the project seems without precedent. In the Tibet Autonomous Region, for example, between 50 and 80 percent of the rural population are being moved to such new villages, with many already living in their new homes (Robin 2009). Between 2012 and 2015, the entire population of Dulong, one of Yunnan's more remote valleys, has been relocated into new, brick-made houses placed along the road. Likewise, along the Karakoram Highway in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, hundreds of newly built houses are waiting for nomad families and farmers to move in.
The new villages are a result of the Chinese government's larger campaign to "build a new socialist countryside" (shehui zhuyi xin nongcun jianshe), promulgated in 2006. On a macro level, the campaign pushes for commercialised agriculture, urbanisation, and infrastructure development to bring water, electricity and road access to rural populations. Under the guidance of local authorities, however, the intentionally vague policy framework has been adapted in a variety of ways. In some places, the campaign was implemented rather successfully (Ahlers and Schubert 2009), while in other places it raises important questions. In Dulong, for example, subsistence farming has been almost completely abandoned in the process of relocation and new conservation laws. The local population now heavily relies on government subsidies with uncertain long-term effects. In Tibet, many of those resettled in the socialist new villages have been pushed into high levels of debt. How those debts will be paid remains a question to be answered. Along the Karakoram Highway, eventually, many of those who are supposed to be relocated are all but happy about this decision, lamenting the poor choice of location of the new houses amidst the dusty desert and their distance from the grasslands where they herd their animals.
The modernist project connected with the socialist new villages is well visible in their physical outline. Built in straight lines, along roads and around a central building for community activities they reflect a certain aesthetic paradigm. The red flags that generally flap on rooftops, as well as the posters of Xi Jinping and Mao Zedong that often adorn the entrance of the houses, are a visualization of the Party's role in the development of the countryside. In peripheral provinces such as Tibet and Xinjiang, moreover, the programme is often paired with the conservation of forests and grasslands, active heritage-making in view of potential income from tourism, and an attempt to increase legibility and control of the local population (Scott 1998). Electricity allows state media to reach every household and the creation of "village committees" enhance the presence of the Party.
Today, ten years after the formulation of the 11th Five-year plan, it is possible to draw some initial conclusions on the impact of the construction of socialist new villages. Moving from a panel at AAS-in-Asia 2016, and a follow-up workshop in Munich in May 2017, we are currently working on a special issue looking at how the construction of new villages affects livelihoods and how such projects are financed.
Ahlers, Anna L., and Gunter Schubert. 2009. “‘Building a New Socialist Countryside’ – Only a Political Slogan?” Current Chinese Affairs 38 (4): 35–62.
Robin, Françoise. 2009. “The ‘ Socialist New Villages ’ in the Tibetan Autonomous Region.” China Perspectives 3: 56–64.
Scott, James C. 1998. Seeing like a state. How certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed. New Haven & London: Yale University Press.