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White Horse Village - changing China



White Horse Village part four - the betrayal

By Carrie Gracie
BBC Newsnight

Mountains near White Horse Village
Remoteness and poverty sheltered White Horse Village from much of the turmoil of 20th century China
The Chinese leadership unveiled a rural revolution in Beijing last month, declaring it difficult but necessary to bring fast growth to the countryside.

A thousand miles away, standing in White Horse Village 'difficult but necessary' feels like an understatement.

Rows of leaking breeze block cells now house the farmers who've seen their fields seized and their homes demolished to make way for a new city.

The past is gone, and the future is taking shape more slowly and painfully than originally promised.

We've been coming to White Horse Village for two and a half years now.

Portrait 'in miniature'

Hemmed in behind daunting mountains to the north of the Yangtze, its remoteness and poverty sheltered it from much of the turmoil of 20th century China and its inhabitants went on farming the way their forbears had for thousands of years.

But White Horse Village is now being recruited to play its part in the 21st century.

People in China's cities are now more than three times as rich as their country cousins and 150 million farmers, including almost all the young and able of White Horse Village, have flooded to the cities.

A house in White Horse Village
Farmers were told to move out of their homes or face eviction
Now Beijing has decreed that it's time to build the cities back home and transform these migrants from people who just make the goods to the people who consume them.

White Horse Village is a portrait in miniature of one of the most important stories in China: whether Beijing can take tens of thousands of villages like this and drag them into the narrative of a rising 21st century superpower.

On our first visit in 2006, the planners told us that within three years, a hill and a village would be flattened to make way for a city of half a million people and that a motorway through the mountains would deliver the world right to that city's doorstep.

The villagers were promised a fine new high school complete with laboratories, libraries and swimming pool.

Their land was already gone and they would have to move out of their farmhouses, but in exchange they'd each have an apartment and a shop front, and their children would get an education to equal the best in China.

Defiance

These farmers wanted to believe in a better future. But watching the government convert their farmland to commercial real estate and pocket the profit made them suspicious.

Villagers demanded guarantees on the future before relinquishing the past.

A year ago, this suspicion had hardened into defiance.

We saw an ultimatum pasted to mud brick houses warning that if the farmers didn't move within three months they would face forcible eviction. But there were no city apartments for them to move into and the villagers were enraged.

They've taken our land, knocked down our houses and now they're breaking their promises on the school
By October 2008, the resistance had collapsed. The protests had gone as far as the county government but had resolved nothing.

But in the end, almost all had signed the contracts handing over homes which had been in their families for generations. Asked why, they all gave the same weary shrug and the same reply: 'There's no other way.'

It's easy to see their point. White Horse Village is just a speck compared to the tens of millions who've been moved in the name of progress. And Chinese politics has always been top down with leaders insisting they know best.

Scaled back

Building the new city was dependent on using the revenue from land sales to pay for infrastructure.

It's hard to get to the bottom of what's gone wrong with the sums but walk down the main street and you have to wonder whether it was wise to give the tax bureau and every other department of the state bureaucracy a multi-storey headquarters before building the school, the hospital or the farmers' apartment blocks.

Work to level one of the nearby hills
The construction work has continued despite fierce opposition
The school project has been scaled back, the motorway's not even begun, the city square is still a wilderness of scrub and rubble and the villagers' homes remain stubbornly low on the list of priorities.

Project manager for the new city, Zhang Yajun is in charge of enacting the future.

He concedes that the situation is imperfect: "If we had first built the new houses for the farmers and then demolished their old houses it would have been better.

"But we've got to start from where we are now. If everyone co-operates, gets the city built quicker, the sooner they'll get their shop fronts, and the sooner they'll leave poverty behind," he says.

This is not the new life the villagers were promised.

And what's worse to them is that the new school which was destined to fit their children and grandchildren for the 21st century opened in September but with only a handful of the village children allowed in.

The farmers complain that the places are being taken instead by the children of officials and businesspeople from the old county capital.

Says one: "They've taken our land, knocked down our houses and now they're breaking their promises on the school. The officials are corrupt. You can't believe a word they say."

When Beijing talks about doubling rural incomes, boosting consumption and eliminating poverty in the countryside, White Horse Village is the China it's talking about.

But here people have no guarantee of a livelihood, a home, or a school place for their children. It's going to be a long time before they feel they belong to a nation of equals.



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