In the past 30 years tens of millions of Chinese farmers have moved to cities to work. While these have boomed, villages have hollowed out. Often the elderly share them with the children left in their care. Houses lie empty. With too few pupils, many rural schools have closed, forcing children to trek long distances daily or attend often grim state-run boarding schools.
Many provinces have devised a remedy for this malaise. It involves knocking down villages and building new, bigger ones, to accommodate the residents of several scattered hamlets. The land where demolished houses stood can then be ploughed up and sown with crops—a boon for a country that has one-fifth of the world’s population but less than one-tenth of its arable land.
Many elderly villagers remember the famine in 1959-61 after Mao Zedong forced them onto collective farms in his disastrous Great Leap Forward. The merging of villages is causing another man-made calamity. It is rarely lethal, but still causes vast suffering (see article).
Experiments with “village consolidation”, conducted in many parts of China over the past two decades, have shown that the scheme is flawed. The officials who order it are often motivated by greed and a desire to impress their superiors. Local governments have a financial incentive to destroy rural housing. By creating more arable land, they can sell greenfield sites near cities to developers without reducing their province’s stock of farmland—an amount ordained by the central government. Urban expansion promotes economic growth, which helps officials’ careers. And when developers and officials are in cahoots, corruption breeds.