Zhangjiagang :
A vision of China's rural future

A boy plays with sand at Zhangjiagang's Jiyang Lake

While visiting the country's rural settlements is often like traveling back in time, workers and even tourists flock to Yonglian village to see "the future of the Chinese countryside".

A composite of industry and government social investment has transformed what was once the poorest fringe of Jiangsu province's Zhangjiagang city into a hypermodern, manicured and clinically clean "model" settlement.

It's a place where residents, including migrant workers, enjoy a living standard unfathomable to most Chinese farmers. The urban-rural integration seen in Yonglian won Zhangjiagang nearly 100 accolades from provincial to international levels, including the UN Habitat Scroll of Honor in 2008. The minimum annual welfare benefits are more than $8,000 a person - far more than the 24,600 yuan ($3,900) average for migrants. Such welfare, among other benefits, also extends to the migrants from 23 provinces that make up about half of Yonglian's population. Also, 5,000 of Yonggang Steel Co's more than 13,000 employees are local. About a third of Yonglian's income respectively comes from the Yonggang Steel Co cooperative agriculture and land leases. The village owns about a quarter of Yonggang's stock.

"The reason people here live better than in other rural places with industry is that we invest more in the public," the village's Deputy Party Secretary Wu Huifang says. "The US and European experiences show we must have industry - not just agriculture - if we want prosperity."

The 700,000 square meter central area cost 1.5 billion yuan to build. Its construction was not only intended to provide public facilities but also to centralize the previously scattered population to improve their access to public amenities and services. About 96 percent of the population has been relocated, with the exception of three "nail houses" - households who refuse to move. These older brick buildings stand in stark contrast to the rest of the modern structures built according to the local traditional style.

One of the most striking facilities is the 380-seat town hall, where 308 representatives pass policies with at least two-thirds of the vote. Every one of the village's 3,000 families also gets a voting card.

Wu says the idea came to him when he toured the city hall of Carson City, Nevada. Proceedings are broadcast on a large screen on the outer wall, so villagers outside can watch. Think of it as rural China's answer to C-SPAN. In addition to basic public facilities such as the hospital, a school - constructed with an underpass for children's safety - and the library there are such extras as an admission-free theater that stages different shows every day. Optional tea costs 2 yuan.

"The theater is great," says 74-year-old Zhang Wenlin, who comes every day from a neighboring village to watch shows and play chess. "There was no place to enjoy ourselves like this before. That means a lot to me. I'm getting older and don't work in the fields anymore and felt bored."

Another extra is the free game center, where 68-year-old Chen Yuanxing plays billiards and chess. Chen says he appreciates the room and the housing program that provides 576 100 sq m apartments the elderly can rent for 80 yuan a month. If they stay with their children, they receive 100 yuan a month. The apartments for the elderly are staffed by one volunteer for every three floors. They help the senior residents because their children are often at work in the city.

Chen lives a six-minute walk from his son. "My children and I have different habits," Chen says. "For example, I get up and go to bed earlier. People of different generations have different lifestyles so it's not so convenient to live together. It's much better to just live close. We can take care of - but don't smother - one another."

Younger residents, including migrants, also receive housing assistance. When the relocation began, locals were given free apartments that are about 150 sq m, while migrant workers could buy them for just 80,000 yuan, the government says. This way, 50-year-old Zhai Huiying and her husband can live in a different apartment than her daughter-in-law and granddaughter. Each has four bedrooms, two living rooms, two restrooms and a spacious kitchen. Yang Zhiying is also happy to have snapped up a 150-sq-m apartment for the same price. There's enough space that her son, who opened an auto mechanic shop, can use an entire room for supply storage. The family also receives 3,900 yuan a year for the 0.2 hectare it leases to an agricultural cooperative.

Agriculture might no longer be Yonglian's dominant industry, but its vast Farmer Culture Park draws more than 120,000 tourists, including several hundred foreigners, every year. Visitors hop electric carts and cruise through the trees and flowers to view demonstration areas devoted to animal husbandry, crop planting and cormorant fishing. There's also a racetrack for pigs, dogs and horses.

Unlike many villages, the only thatched roofs in Yonglian are for the benefit of tourists. They crown original buildings converted into shops where such goods as liquor, tofu and bamboo products are made and sold as in the olden days.

Huang Juxiang travels from a neighboring village to work as a cart driver at the park. The 37-year-old earns 1,000 to 2,000 yuan a month, depending on visitor flows.

"But it's not about the money," she says. "I was a housewife but now my kid is getting older. This gives me something to do."

Wu believes it's important to retain culture during development. "Our soaring economy is like a bird whose flight is given lift by the two wings of culture," he says. "We don't want to act like the nouveau riche. We want to build our community in a modern way but preserve our customs."

That's why the government built four halls respectively for funerals and weddings during the relocation, as local tradition requires mass gatherings of relatives, friends and neighbors to one's home for such events.

The village's main throughway is Culture Street. It's adorned with a series of sculptures commemorating landmark events in Yonglian's development. One depicts Wu Dongcai - Wu Huifang's father and the village's Party secretary - carrying a large tractor engine. Wu arrived when Yonglian was being formed by merging five villages on mostly fallow land, starting in the early 1970s. Given the failures of previous village leaders, locals were suspicious of Wu's army background and skeptical that he could improve their lives because they assumed he didn't know about farming. So they devised a test - they asked him to help them haul the engine to the field. Wu carried the front the entire way, while those taking the back had to change several times, the story goes. He then went on to carry the impoverished settlement to prosperity. It's rare, indeed, to see a Chinese village with luxury stores, cafes and Western restaurants advertising spaghetti.

"We've pioneered this model," Wu Huifang says. "But we don't own it. It can be replicated throughout China's countryside."