For generations, Li Rui's family picked vegetables on his family's plot in Liaocheng, Shandong province. When I met him in 2013, the 60-year-old farmer was returning to the same land to harvest scrap metal. He bent down to pocket bits of twisted wire, screws and whatever else he could sell for a few fen a kilo. The land, appropriated by government authorities to make way for a phalanx of condominiums, yielded construction waste instead of food.

Without a skill, Li had become one of millions of newly landless farmers forced to adapt to an urban life as China hurtles through a massive new phase of urbanisation.

Faced with shrinking exports and slowing growth, Communist leaders are pushing ahead with a gigantic, historic plan to uproot 100 million farmers and turn their fields into urban dwellings in six years - by 2020 - to create a giant new middle class and boost demand. This model, based on expectations of 7 per cent GDP growth per year, calls for mass creation of jobs, schools, factories, offices, shopping malls - in short, a brand new consumer population out of poor, uneducated farmers. Yet, such a levitation act can only work when times are good. Sharp downturns, such as the recent stock market crash, can reduce gleaming new cities into ghost towns, liberated farmers into hordes of unemployed.

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China's rural diaspora began decades ago, as people left their villages for factory work in cities. But now, the government, not the economy, dictates resettlement. As apartment blocks are erected on farmland, villagers turn - willingly or not - into urbanites. People call this "warehousing", because farmers are stacked vertically to free up land for commercial use. Some pop-up cities are already inhabited, and others are little more than blueprints. Bureaucrats expect China's urban population to top one billion by 2030.

These numbers are almost unfathomable. But by photographing the individual farmers swept up by these abrupt changes, I aim to document an economic phenomenon that is shaping the world's future superpower.

Despite nearly four decades of economic reforms, this is not a change the Chinese people endure quietly. Land disputes rising from urbanisation account for tens of thousands of protests each year. People are mostly angry at the disproportionate profits local authorities make from their land.

But the majority of farmers I meet grudgingly see a bright side. After taking pictures of Li scouring the wasteland, I approached him to try to understand his grievance. To my surprise, he grinned and explained: "I can't wait … one of those apartments behind will be mine." Many families tell me they yearn to have their land seized and be given relatively luxurious apartments.

As a Chinese person living abroad, I look at this with the perspective of both a compassionate citizen and a questioning outsider. As I criss-cross the country talking with farmers to get closer to a reasonable truth, I have begun to believe that China has got the maths right. Yet, I increasingly worry about the long-term consequence for society. What happens to humanity - and Earth - as 16 million additional subsistence farmers clamour to join the consumptive middle class in each of the coming four years? What comes after their euphoria of moving into an apartment with internet, toilet and a small stipend evaporates? Where will the jobs be? And the nature?

Sceptics point to the disastrous Great Leap Forward, a campaign by Mao Zedong to modernise China overnight that ended with tens of millions dead and decades of economic regression. In other parts of the world, such as Brazil and Mexico, farmers forced from their land find few opportunities. Homelessness, hitherto unseen in Communist China, is becoming a phenomenon in many cities.

History, migration and social changes in Russia and China are the core of my work. I embarked on this project after shooting "Zone of Absolute Discomfort" in the Russian Arctic. There, I documented a landscape plundered by successive generations of Russian leaders, from Stalin to Putin. The government collectivised Arctic nomads and sent both volunteers and political prisoners to industrialise the icy desert.

I want to show how such policies affect both humans and the planet, whether under the command of a Russian dictator or a Chinese politburo.

Next week, part 2: new urban lives

 

 

About Justin Jin

Justin Jin was born in 1974, in Hong Kong. He attended La Salle Primary School and College, in Kowloon, before leaving for the UK,  where he graduated from Cambridge University.  He worked as a Reuters correspondent before picking up a camera to pursue an international photography career. He is the recipient of a Magnum Foundation grant, a Picture of the Year International Award and a World Press Photo Masterclass scholarship, among other prizes, and now splits his time between Europe and Asia, calling Hong Kong his “true home". Visit www.justinjin.com.

 

 

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