Page last updated at 14:37 GMT, Monday, 29 November 2010
White Horse Village - changing China

White Horse Village - the city fills the valley floor

By Carrie Gracie
BBC Newsnight

The slogan here is "happy harmonious city life", but not everyone will live to see it.

"My father was too moral. It was his outrage over corruption and injustice which drove him to violence. And now he's on death row."

Zhu Demei chokes back tears as she describes how her father snapped when the demolition crew came to tear down his new kitchen.

I used to have a big house with a courtyard. Now I have to climb up and down all these stairs and I have prostitutes and strangers for neighbours
Jin Zhongzhen

In theory only government approved developers are allowed to build in the new city. Private citizens can only get away with it by having the right connections and paying the right bribes.

Zhu Demei's father protested. And when the demolition boss pushed him to the floor, he picked up a brick and threw it.

The boss lost his footing on the concrete stairs, hit his head in his fall and died on the way to hospital. Her father has now been convicted of murder and sentenced to death.


To look at this city from the top floor of the communist party headquarters, it is hard to imagine such tragedy unfolding below.

Between forested mountain walls the valley floor is laid out like a model city with neat apartment blocks, hotels, schools, and a grid of broad streets humming with government limousines, shiny new police cars and a musical dustbin lorry.

Wuxi New Town
Where there were fields just four years ago now stands a city

How different from when we started our series four years ago. Then this valley was as it had been for centuries, maize and rice paddy stretching from the banks of the meandering brown river right back to the mountain. And on the lower slopes, the farmhouses of White Horse Village clustering among bamboo groves and ancestral tombs.

Back then it was hard to visualise all of this. Far away in Beijing the Communist Party had decreed that inland China must be modernised and urbanised, 500 million subsistence farmers lifted from poverty and brought into the story of China's economic miracle by creating cities and jobs for them at home rather than just in coastal China.

For the community here that would mean flattening hills and demolishing homes, tunnelling through mountains and concreting over fields.

Altered states

Over the intervening years, we have reported on the conflict between Communist Party and village over tombs and homes, and the wrenching arguments not just between neighbours but between husband and wife, mother and daughter over how to come to terms with the sudden arrival of modernity.

China map

Some have given in. Three years ago, 70-year-old Jin Zhongzhen said he would fight to the death to resist moving from his mud brick courtyard house just under the party headquarters.

Now he is in a three bedroom apartment and has a shop below. He has rented out the shop to a hotpot restaurant and the government has given him a pension.

The apartment has electrical appliances, two bathrooms, and hot running water but he does not like to spend too much time up there on his own. Instead he spends his days in his old blue farmer's jacket and woolly hat selling cigarettes on the street corner and reminiscing about the old house.

"I used to have a big house with a courtyard. Now I have to climb up and down all these stairs and I have prostitutes and strangers for neighbours.

"I can't keep a pig or grow any vegetables. I have to buy everything from the shops. And worst of all, there's nowhere for the family wedding parties and anniversaries. And when I die, where are the family going to put my coffin when everyone needs to gather for the wake?"

Embracing opportunity

The younger villagers are much more willing to embrace the new city life. Especially those who have been migrant workers and seen big city life on the coast.

Inside Jin Zhongzen's new modern apartment

Many have come home with capital and ideas, to open restaurants and hairdressing salons or to grab the opportunities created by the real estate boom with shops selling flooring and bathroom appliances.

Until this year, Zheng Jun and his wife worked in a factory in north east China but they have decided to try their luck in the new city and invested their savings in the latest appliances from Hong Kong - shower units with massage function, Jacuzzi hot tubs and self-cleaning toilets with heated seats.

"Everyone in this city is going to need a modern bathroom. In fact, most people are fitting two and tend to put a traditional squatting toilet in one and a Western style sitting toilet in the other," Mr Zheng explains.

Western styles

If bathrooms are anything to go by, White Horse Village seems to be hurtling through centuries of development in the space of a few months.

"We want to be one of the most liveable small cities in China and we've got one third of the project finished already," Hua Zujun, deputy governor of the county and the person ultimately responsible for getting this city built, says.

It's not fair. Why are some people allowed to build big new houses when others can't build a tiny extension?
Zhang Qicai

"We have four objectives - a civilised, hygienic, scenic city, with the focus on eco-tourism. Our local economy will also depend on mining, agribusiness and hydropower.

"We're situated in the very heart of China between three huge cities, Chongqing, Xian and Wuhan. And when our highway network is finished we'll be only five hours from any of them."

Fine talk, but the highway to Chongqing is three years behind schedule. All through the night the lights are on up on the mountain as the tunnel builders try to make up for time lost in arguments over land confiscation.

Two-and-a-half kilometres to tunnel through this mountain and there are other mountains beyond. China is building 5,000km of highway a year, planning to match the US network by 2020.

For every migrant villager who has returned from the coast to try their luck in the new city there are many more watching and waiting in factories far away for the moment when the highway is finished and the new city's economy takes off.

Return delayed

Zhang Qicai has one eye on the road builders on the mountain and the other on the new long distance bus station:

"I'm thinking when the bus station is finished just up the road, I can have a little business. Maybe a shop or a restaurant. That's my dream," she says.

"But the city's not finished yet, nor the bus station, so for the time being my husband's going to have to stay in Beijing and save. And then in a few years, he can come back with some capital and we can start the business together."

In the meantime she is working as a cleaner and renting out rooms to a team of road builders. She built an extension so that she could have more lodgers, but a demolition crew knocked it down.

Villagers' homes make way for playing fields

"It's not fair. Why are some people allowed to build big new houses when others can't build a tiny extension?" she asks. "Some say it's because officials are given presents and bribes, that they're taken to restaurants and brothels."

Suspicion and mistrust are never far beneath the surface.

Some villagers are refusing to move into their new city apartments even though their farmhouses were knocked down three years ago and they have been in leaky temporary housing ever since.

They do not think the building they have been allocated will withstand an earthquake like the one that killed nearly one hundred thousand people in the region two years ago.

They believe the builders have cut corners and lined their own pockets; and that their connections have let them get away with it - public safety compromised by the ruthless pursuit of private interests.

Focus of anger

At a village meeting, anger boils over: "The government doesn't take the people seriously. If the building collapses, who cares? We let them demolish our homes so they could build the new school. And we still haven't got anywhere decent to live," one person says.

Unequal opportunity, corruption and injustice - the grievances among those who feel they are being marginalised in a place which was once their home.

The murder conviction has provided a focus for this anger. Everyone here knows Zhu Demei's father and 1,000 people have signed a petition urging the authorities to commute his death sentence to a prison term.

The consensus is that he was provoked and that the authorities should take some responsibility for the tragedy in which a demolition boss died.

"The policy is corrupt. It pushes people over the edge," one villager told me.

So one man is dead and another awaits his fate. And all for the sake of a kitchen extension.

Zhu Demei is not allowed to visit her father and the prison where he waits on death row is not marked on any of the new city plans.

In fact, the prison too is scheduled for demolition. When all is finished, there will be no record of the turbulence and pain which have accompanied the disappearance of White Horse Village and the birth of Wuxi New Town.

Watch the latest film from White Horse Village on Newsnight on Monday 29 November 2010 at 10.30pm on BBC Two and then afterwards on the BBC iPlayer, or Newsnight website.

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