In the past decade, China could be dubbed a huge construction site in the eyes of many Westerners. Beginning this year, the infrastructure boom will spread from cities to the countryside.
Building a "new socialist countryside" has become a hot topic in the last three months, as it was specified in the country's 11th Five-Year Plan (2006-10) for economic and social development.
It is certainly a strategic measure that has won wide support from the people. Further, this project will be conducive to reducing the gap between the rich and the poor that has accompanied the country's economic development since the 1990s. Great importance has been attached to long-neglected rural infrastructure construction and rural social welfare, and public financing will be tilted toward rural areas.
Premier Wen Jiabao has mentioned many times that the policy, in which industry assists agriculture and cities support rural areas, should be carried out seriously. He further noted that economic growth and investment should focus on the vast rural areas, which have over 800 million residents.
According to this commitment, the Central Government will spend over 339.7 billion yuan on issues related to agriculture, the countryside and farmers, a 14.2 percent increase compared with last year, and accounting for 21.4 percent of the total increment in financial expenditures in 2006. Other measures include abolishing the agricultural tax nationwide, and implementing compulsory education in the countryside.
These are pragmatic efforts by the government, not mere slogans. Some local governments in succession are also enacting countryside development plans for the next five or more years.
While people applaud the new decisions by the government, some worry, "What is the new countryside in a real sense?' Can local authorities properly translate the Central Government's policy toward the rural areas?
Literally, "new" refers to wider roads and stylish residential houses. Some people may hold a one-sided view that building a new countryside means tearing down old villages and building new ones.
It was reported that a provincial government planned to reduce the 240,000 villages under its jurisdiction to about 40,000 through a massive merger campaign, for the reason that the villages are small and farmers reside randomly. It explained that the random living situation in villages led to a waste of land and was not conducive to building agricultural infrastructure and protecting the environment. According to the plan, new village residential areas would be built to accommodate 100 families.
People began to wonder whether the move stemmed merely from an effort to improve the local government's performance. Could the farmers who are being displaced to the new standardized villages adapt to the new environment, where they would encounter higher living and production expenses? Would they be happy after their land is taken and they are driven away from nature?
To build a new countryside does not mean the mere construction of new buildings or new residential areas. As a matter of fact, it should be an all-inclusive goal that is designed to achieve higher productivity, a well-off living situation, a clean environment and democratic management. In reality, the government should proceed from a people-oriented perspective and solve the most urgent production and living problems raised by farmers.
When local governments are striving to improve productivity, promote a new type of efficiency-oriented alliance among farmers and raise employment, the authorities must respect and safeguard the legitimate rights of farmers. For instance, the government should ensure compulsory education for school-age children in rural areas and build up basic medical care and pension systems, as well as improve irrigation and transportation. The farmers should enjoy the right to migrate and to choose their profession, as well as other democratic rights.
As a matter of fact those commitments made by the Chinese Government in the 11th Five-Year Plan are just the beginning of rural revival in China.