As vil­lages van­ish, what fills the void?

China Daily (Canada) - - FRONT PAGE - By LI YANG in Shang­hai

The Spring Fes­ti­val hol­i­day last month of­fered many peo­ple work­ing in big cities the rare chance to go back to their coun­try­side home­towns and have a look at the wither­ing vil­lages.

Sev­eral doc­tor­ate can­di­dates have noted the sense of loss they got from their vis­its to their di­lap­i­dated home­towns, which have been hol­lowed out by the process of China’s ur­ban­iza­tion.

Young peo­ple leave for cities, leav­ing be­hind the el­derly and the kids. Old houses and com­mu­ni­ties are de­serted, or de­mol­ished.

The peo­ple feel lonely in big cities, where they get ed­u­ca­tion and good jobs, be­cause of ruth­less com­pe­ti­tion and a cul­ture dif­fer­ent from their home­town.

The home­town seems like a place they will never re­turn to, be­cause their ed­u­ca­tion has made them con­trar­ian out­siders there. The vil­lages and small towns are also rid­dled with nepo­tism and crony­ism, and they can­not in­te­grate into the lo­cal life.

Their re­turn-home commentaries have cir­cu­lated rapidly on so­cial me­dia and sparked wide de­bate on the pluses and mi­nuses of the coun­try’s fast growth.

Many peo­ple do not agree with the post­grads’ points of view, crit­i­ciz­ing their feel­ings as one-sided and too sub­jec­tive, and al­leg­ing that th­ese are “grow­ing pains” of a na­tion, and well-ed­u­cated peo­ple should have a “pos­i­tive” at­ti­tude to­ward the coun­try’s devel­op­ment.

The pop­u­lar­ity of the post­grads’ posts is tes­ta­ment to the fact that nos­tal­gic sen­ti­men­tal­ism is com­mon in a fast-chang­ing so­ci­ety.

About 100,000 vil­lages have dis­ap­peared in China’s ur­ban­iza­tion dur­ing the past 10 years. Nearly half of the pop­u­la­tion work and live far from their home­town.

Crit­ics should fo­cus on the prob­lems rather than their emo­tions.

Vil­lages and small towns are de facto left be­hind in China’s devel­op­ment. The farm­ers’ av­er­age per­sonal in­come is only about one third of their ur­ban coun­ter­parts, not to men­tion the gap in so­cial ser­vices be­tween vil­lages and cities.

Feasts, mahjong and re­den­velopes con­tain­ing cash in some bet­ter-off vil­lages and small towns are in sharp con­trast to the di­lap­i­da­tion in back­ward ru­ral ar­eas.

The dis­ap­point­ment of the peo­ple long­ing to bring back the “good old days” at home is un­der­stand­able. They were born in the 1970s and 1980s when the coun­try­side of China was not yet opened to the free mar­ket. The im­pact of the “cul­tural revo­lu­tion” (1966-76) on the coun­try­side was limited. But the mar­ket re­form later rip­pling through shat­tered some en­trenched val­ues that nour­ished their growth.

The sim­ple val­ues orig­i­nat­ing from tra­di­tional agri­cul­tural so­ci­ety — such as the rev­er­ence for na­ture and an­ces­tors, com­mu­nity spirit, and fil­ial piety — are dy­ing and be­ing re­placed by com­mod­ity fetishism.

The gov­ern­ment called for a re­vival of fam­ily virtue and Con­fu­cian­ism last year. But the gov­ern­ment-funded Con­fu­cian­ism classes even failed in Qufu, Con­fu­cius’ home­town in Shan­dong prov­ince.

When the farm­ers quit pray­ing for good weather, har­vest and the Na­ture’s pro­tec­tion, it is in­creas­ingly popular for their ur­ban coun­ter­parts to kow­tow to var­i­ous stat­ues in tem­ples for money and luck.

The gov­ern­ment needs to in­crease its in­put to im­prove farm­ers’ liveli­hood and public ser­vices, es­pe­cially ed­u­ca­tion, med­i­cal care and pen­sions.

Pre­vi­ously, al­most each vil­lage had its own pri­mary school, which may have had only one teacher spon­sored by the vil­lagers them­selves. The teach­ers and the vil­lage gen­try, made up of well-off farm­ers, vil­lage heads, fam­ily clan heads and landown­ers, play in­dis­pen­si­ble roles in a vil­lage. They are role mod­els and form the grass­roots gov­er­nance body.

But af­ter the land re­form of the 1950s and ed­u­ca­tion re­form since the late 1990s, the two classes have ba­si­cally dis­ap­peared. The vil­lages be­come only par­tially af­fil­i­ated with town­ship gov­ern­ments. Its viability as a cul­tural unit grad­u­ally withers.

To some ex­tent, the prob­lem of Chi­nese vil­lages is that when the old val­ues fade away, no sys­tems that can ef­fec­tively bind the peo­ple and com­mu­nity ap­pear to fill the vac­uum.

Many peo­ple’s

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