We all hear of how fast China is rapidly changing from a rural country to one that lives, works, and plays in cities. This brilliant documentary, wrapped in a questioning yet never critical tone, shows that trend in action, following elderly villagers who are lured from their ramshackle farm houses to high-rise apartments and providing thoughtful insight from the government workers who bring them there.
How did you get access to make this film?
AS: Gaining access to our characters was a complicated process. We knew we wanted to follow the relocation plan in Ordos, that involves farmers being moved off their land and into the new city, from both the side of the government and the side of the farmers. Finding a farmer who hadn’t moved to the city yet, but was planning to, and who was also charismatic enough to be on camera, involved a lot of time on the ground going from village to village. Many of the villages we went to had emptied out, and were completely desolate bar one or two farmers. We finally stumbled upon Hao Shiwen, and his wife, who were the last remaining farming couple in their village, and were planning to move to the city in the near future. They were both willing to be involved in the film, perhaps out of curiosity for a filming process they were unfamiliar with.
As for the government side of the story, we met a few government officials in Ordos who weren’t active enough to be in our film and sort of fit the stereotype of the middle aged, male official sitting at his desk all day. We stumbled upon Yuan Xiaomei, the government worker in our film, by chance one day, when we were exploring a neighborhood built for relocated farmers in the new city. Luckily her major in college was English and she explained she had been looking for someone to practice her English with, and at that point we felt this was the perfect win-win situation in which she could practice her English, in exchange for participating in our documentary.
We immediately interviewed her, and learned her job was so interesting, and involved going out to the countryside to convince farmers to move into the city, and also involved helping newly relocated farmers adapt to urban life. Xiaomei and the government cohort she was in, were initially cagey about us filming with them, so it was like baby-steps at first.
On our first couple of trips we were only able to film very simple scenes with her. It was only during later trips, when she felt more comfortable, that she opened up a bit more and allowed us to film more complex and sensitive scenes with her. Part of what made her feel more comfortable with us filming during our later trips was due to us gaining permission from the propaganda department of Ordos to film with her, and also when she saw that we both were going back to Ordos frequently, and really wanted to understand this place and weren’t just there to make a quick story on how Ordos was a ghost city like many reporters had before us.
Do the Chinese authorities realize that the “Chinese Dream” of moving into a tiny apartment is contrary to the prevailing “American Dream” of moving to a big place in the country?
ST: In our movie, farmers have been relocated into newly built apartments in the Ordos new town and those apartments are by all means not small by Chinese standards. Talking about tiny apartments, the only example I can come up with is that in Hong Kong, which is never regarded as an ideal residence by any government plan. A big part of the “Chinese Dream” is to move farmers into cities and urbanize the areas that are not proper for farming. Nobody’s dream is to move into a tiny apartment. The big houses associated with the American Dream is achievable because America has vast land with a relatively small population, I don’t think this can be applied to densely populated countries like China and India.
To be honest, most Chinese people seem confused by what the “Chinese Dream” officially means. Everyone seems to have their own interpretation of what it means, and maybe this is the point: To get Chinese people to dream and aspire for something, and look to the future. Ironically there are urbanites in China who dream of escaping the city, and living in a suburban area in the countryside, much in the same way Americans once did. So their “Chinese Dream” fits more closely with the “American Dream”.
You focus on people who aren’t quite sure about the move, but are most Chinese happy with the situation?
AS: We would say that the majority of relocated farmers we spoke to, who now live in the new city, were happy with their new situation as they’ve been lifted out of quite a hard life trying to farm in an arid region, and into a new urban area with a free apartment and urban benefits. Perhaps “happy” isn’t the right word, and maybe “accepting” is. What you have to keep in mind is that the older generations in China are used to forces much larger than themselves steering the direction their lives take. Depending on their age, they’ve lived through foreign occupation, the Cultural revolution, the Great Leap Forward, famine, the reform years, the economic rise of China, and now they’re being pushed off their land and into the city. It’s just another huge cultural shift that’s out of their control, and so they just accept it.
Do you feel that the Chinese people will rebel at some point against this trend? Not necessarily violently, but culturally?
ST: If you mean moving farmers into cities, we can take a look at what the necessary elements are for them to rebel. A number of relocated farmers benefit from their relocation compensation. In general their city residence is provided with more modern facilities, better transportation, better education opportunities and more job options compared to being a farmer. On a bigger scale, the farmers in our movie for example, once lived on land that is not even fertile or productive. They lose their old houses indeed, but not the land that is never a private property in China. Furthermore, many villages are in lack of the youth because young people all move out to seek opportunities in the cities. How to plan for the seniors’ social welfare becomes a challenge. There are protests in some cities at times against violently tearing down old residences for future commercial property development, but those are quite different cases to the relocation plan in Ordos, where farmers are pushed to move with enticing urban benefits, but aren’t forced to.
Was the city a pleasant place to visit? How about the country villages?
ST: Ordos new city is no doubt very clean. You will find a lot of public facilities such as the city museum, the city library and the exhibition center etc. These somehow still lack trained people who can provide good service. There seems to have been an attempt there to remedy some of the issues existing cities in China suffer from, such as a lack of green space, air pollution, ugly and despotic looking buildings and so on. The country villages outside of the Ordos new city area are gradually disappearing They are like most villages in northern China where young people have already migrated to cities to seek opportunities, while their home village is left with only seniors. Some of the villages are pleasant places, and others were built very quickly during the Great Leap Forward, when people were pushed out of towns into Ordos to farm, and therefore aren’t so beautiful or particularly nice places to be in.
What do you predict for the future of these new cities that are being built all across China?
AS: At the heart of the relocation plan in Ordos, and the larger national equivalent, that aims to relocate 250 million farmers into new cities over the next 15-20 years, is an earnest attempt to raise rural people’s standard of living. This plan is well founded, as the gap between rural and urban incomes has been widening greatly over the past decade. Also, many country people yearn to move to a city, but find when they get there, that they’re locked out of the urban benefits system, called ‘hukou’. With the government moving them, they have more opportunity to ask for urban benefits, such as healthcare, a pension, housing.
Ordos is filling up with mostly ex-farmers, who have no or very little prior experience of urban life, it’s right to think there’s potential for creating an urban underclass of people unable to live a fulfilling life in the city. This of course is a concern that extends to the 250 million the central government hope to move to cities. That said, compensation is generally offered, and as far as Ordos goes, the newly relocated ex-farmers are educated in how to go about starting a life in the city, and are helped finding a job.