This blog was first posted on the Planning Resource website on 28 January 2012.
I went to the cinema last night to watch a new film from China. I recommend “Mr Tree” as a film that gives you a flavour of the great transition that China is going through as people move to the cities. It shows some of the processes of change and their impacts on villages in the countryside. It will prompt planners, environmentalists and those involved in economic development to debate the costs and benefits of an annual growth rate of 8% per annum growth rate, and to ask could similar gains be achieved without some of the less desirable side effects?
Shu is the central character. His name translates as “Mr.Tree”, and as the moniker implies he is rooted in his rural environment, and in his reverie sees himself sitting aloft in a tree and seeing the rural past become unstable present and an urban future. An early shot shows him haphazardly joining a crowd of others from the village as they set their backs to the screen and to the past and walk towards a future that is uncertain, will be different but will surely be as city dwellers. The same shot is repeated in what should be the closing image of the film, though just in case we had not worked it out for ourselves, the director adds another 5 minutes showing us the new high density housing estate into which the villages have moved, some taking their farm animals with them in the universal tradition of first generation urban migrants.
From the start, Shu is seen as something of an oddity, a “village idiot” who always has “things to do” but does nothing productive. He never wants money, even when friends push notes into his palm. In the countryside cash is less essential to survival, but as China becomes urban and the market economy opens new opportunities, money soon defines people and their life chances. Midway through the film Shu becomes so disoriented by the combined personal, social and economic pressures that he lapses into a world of imagination. In this state he even looks upon the new housing estates in the city as a place where he and his (estranged) wife can live happily with his (imagined) expected child.
One of the forces that breaks Shu is the construction of a new coalmine just outside his cottage. One weakness of the film is that it tries to run with several themes of Chinese transition all at once, even touching in the classic Chinese settlement hierarchy – village, county town and provincial capital. However, the coalmine story is the strongest of these and for those involved in planning and development it is the most pertinent. However, this is not a film about the progress of a planning application! The nearest we get to neighbour notification is the village leader telling people the mine is going to happen. Thereafter there is no consultation, only loudspeaker inducements for people to vacate their homes and take up the offer of cash plus white goods to move to the new flats in the city.
What is clear is that those most closely connected to the village leader are the drivers of the immediate mining operation. From what I know of China, land in the established urban areas was state owned while land in villages was not considered urban, and so local village authorities had great freedom over development. For previously rural places now on the rapidly spreading urban peripheries, or in places where there are key resources such as coal, this has created a bonanza for those able to control the land development process. It is a form of development that in its details is idiosyncratic to the helter-skelter transition in China since the early 1990s. Together with the pull of the opportunities in the cities it constitutes a push as peoples’ agricultural occupations disappear.
A further consequence of this essentially unregulated development is environmental degradation. This is addressed directly in the film. The mining drains away the underground water that has supplied the village wells. The villagers are left having to pay to fill their buckets from water tanks brought in from elsewhere. Again the cash economy displaces the traditional access to common goods.
There is a long tradition in Chinese cinema in which rural honesty and goodness is contrasted with the artifice and veniality of the cities. During the Cultural Revolution students and professionals were dispatched from the cities to learn from the peasants. However, Mr.Tree does not paint an idyllic picture of village life in inland China. Yes, the elderly mother weeps as she leaves her home to head to her new flat, but her few possessions are packed in the car with her. However, in a flashback that haunts Shu, it was on a tree by the village that his father hung Shu’s brother. The landscape throughout is snow-bound, houses are basic, living here is not easy – I still shiver at the thought of how cold I was when I was in Shanxi province, China’s main coalfield area in January 2010!
One Chinese person in the audience last night remarked that there are a few people like Shu in every village, persons left disoriented by the pace of change. However, as planners we need to recognise that the dramatic economic growth and increase in wealth in China could not have happened without the extensive urbanisation that is now occurring. The gap between rural and urban living standards is not new, but the pace at which it is widening is a legitimate cause for concern, as are the environmental costs. There is no easy fix, but it is refreshing to see that through films like this (which was directed by Han Jie) the issues are being aired in China.