When tourists traverse down the streets of the quiet riverside town of Yucheng, China, about an hour away from metropolitan Shanghai, they can indulge in its local specialities, such as its grapes, turtle ponds, and in the near future, sex toys. Yucheng’s town government recently invested 10 billion yuan, or a bit over 1.9 billion CAD to convert the tiny hamlet into China’s “Happy Town”, which would include a sex exhibition centre, an adult-only hotel, and a sex toy shopping street. If you are not enchanted by what Yucheng has to offer, perhaps you should take a trip to Dayun, the “Sweet Town” in the Zhejiang province and indulge in their chocolate, or head to the “Sock City” of Datang and participate in their annual sock festival. In fact, there’s a town for just about every niche one could possibly dream of, from hot springs in Wenquan Xiaozhen to nuclear power in Haiyan. All of these developments are part of the People’s Republic of China’s policy campaign to stimulate localized economic expansion and narrow the economic gap between their urban and rural population by funding ‘feature towns’ or te se xiaozhen.
These feature towns are meant to have distinctive qualities in “tourism, trade & logistics, modern manufacturing, education & technology, traditional culture, and livability”. Essentially, this policy calls on provinces to submit development strategies for selected towns in exchange for state funding. These funds would then be used to upgrade infrastructure, commercialize natural and cultural resources, and also assist the town in expanding their specialized industry. Te se xiaozhen is designed to increase economic vitality in rural towns by creating new jobs and urging rural residents to stay in their smaller, thriving towns rather than migrating to cities. From 2008 to 2014, the number of urban residents in China increased by 14 million, while the number of rural residents dropped by 7 million.
The purpose of Beijing’s advocacy of this policy is three-fold: it positions towns for growth in their specified industry, decreases the number of in-migrants moving to large chinese cities, and allows small towns to simultaneously function as tourist resorts. There are concerns, however, that this policy may lead towns to spend egregiously and induce a debt-laden crisis. While the Central Government plans to build 1,000 feature towns, Guo Li, a Zhengzhou-based city planning analyst, estimates that there are around 6,000 feature towns in the works. Hitherto, the average investment has been around 5 billion yuan per town. If this holds true for the 1,000 planned feature towns the Central Government wants to build, the total cost of this project could reach 5 trillion yuan (over 950 billion CAD). China’s feature town policy is similar to that of Japan’s “One Village, One Product (OVOP) Movement”, a regional development program that started in 1979 to address its own urban-rural development gap. Much like China, Japan’s rapid industrialization efforts led to many of its people migrating into larger urban centres, which led to labour shortages in rural areas.
To achieve rural economic revitalization, the OVOP movement pushed for vast active participation of local people and an emphasis on local resources when making development plans. The policy was a wide success in Japan, and places like Oita increased their number of sales threefold and more than doubled their number of specialty products from 1980 to 2001. Japan’s OVOP project focused on the creation of internationally accepted products and services created by local resources, the self-reliance and creativity of the town, and human resource development. By 1988 the OVOP movement was adopted at the national level by the Takeshita government, and over 3268 villages had received a one-time grant of 100 million yen to reinvigorate their communities. Japan’s initiative flourished thanks to a rare experiment by the usually highly centralized government: they allowed the OVOP movement to work entirely under unfettered discretion. Restoring the power of local communities through decentralization provided the energy and originality on the local level that led to its revival. And where Japan focused on its bottom-up approach to tackling rural development, China has pursued this policy from the top-down.
While China claims that its feature towns would uplift its rural residents, the idealized picturesque small towns are usually thrown aside in the pursuit of economic functionality. Chikan, a small town close to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Diaolou, is being turned into a historical theme park through these feature town projects. Its 670,000 residents have been pushed to eviction to make room for tourist attractions. It seems that so far, instead of taking advantage of the surrounding local culture and resources, local government authorities and property developers have focused instead on creating a brand image and drawing investors. Once speculation grows around an alleged feature town, the costs of housing and other goods rises and drives its population away. In some cases, feature towns merely expands urbanization in cities out towards these rural areas. China has already laid out its concerns and scolded local governments for risky spending via the feature town policy campaign.
It fails, however, to acknowledge its own faults to its top-down approach to urbanization. It has cautioned against blindly demolishing historic districts, building skyscrapers, and the inclusion of foreign culture, but the Central Government will need to do more to guarantee that the 6,000 feature towns that are being built will not push provinces into debt while still truly respecting the lives of its local communities. For this policy to succeed, smaller towns need to take the wheel. At the present, residents of small towns have little-to-no autonomy and are under the mercy of provincial governments in their city’s planned future. The development of rural China is checked by an inadequate power of decision-making and a lack of access to services. China’s resources may be better spent focusing on those matters rather than attempting to manufacture charming towns to attract tourists.
True ‘feature towns’ should be a direct result of market competition rather than by policy designs. China has a storied history of single-industry towns that have prospered, but these towns have generally come up organically through the rigours of facing global markets. Without examining the individual needs of towns and local ecosystems, without respecting local life, and without faith in local innovation, feature towns are doomed to be isolated as commercial gimmicks.