BBC photo-essay captures the changes in my area of China

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JISHOU, HUNAN — The BBC Magazine today has an excellent photo-essay describing how the urbanization of China has affected one family profoundly.

Although the farming village in question is not in Hunan, it’s not very far from where I live, about 350 km as the crow flies. (See map, above. I’ve circled major cities and the Three Gorges Dam to help in reading this Bing.com map.) Much of what BBC reporter Carrie Gracie says has happened to the family of Xiao Zhang has happened to countless families all across China.

I teach some of their children here at Jishou University, students who in many cases are the first in their village to attend university, whose grandparents are barely literate, and whose parents left the village to work in the big cities.

To cope with the hundreds of millions of rural people flooding into the big cities to find work, China’s has undertaken huge modernization projects — wiping out entire rural villages and building small cities on top of them.

From one perspective, it’s a terrible loss of an age-old way of life. The villagers really did not have much choice in the matter, as previous BBC reports detailed.

But from another, the “new China” has opened up society, especially for women. The BBC photo-essay, The Village and the Girl, focuses on three generations of women in one family: the grandmother who only knew subsistence farming as a way of life, her restless daughter (Xiao Zhang) who worked in Beijing as a maid before marriage, and her granddaughter who will probably go to university in another few years.

The grandmother’s and mother’s home village, White Horse Village in Wuxi County, Chongqing Municipality, is gone. The rice paddies and pig farms have been replaced with an urban complex, Wuxi New Town, with many times the population, better schools and — most importantly — jobs that don’t require local residents to migrate to the big cities to find.

China’s booming economy has enabled vast improvements in the nation’s infrastructure, but created some serious social problems. One of the biggest dilemmas facing China is the plight of the “left behind” children. These are kids whose parents leave them with their grandparents to raise, so the parents can work in the big cities far away. The children are not entitled to attend schools near their parents’ workplaces, so parents have no choice but to leave them at home.

Some grandparents cope with their responsibilities quite well. My students are testament to that. But many, for one reason or another, don’t know to deal with rebellious or resentful grandchildren, who (my teacher friends report) are often unruly and disruptive in school. There are fears that these “left behind” kids will create a juvenile delinquency problem as they grow older. There are already problems with gangs, teenage prostitution and substance abuse, even in small towns.

One solution, which Chinese officials seem reluctant to try, would be to allow migrant workers to take their children with them, to enroll in the big city schools. But school officials fear a sudden influx of millions of children will strain urban school systems, so this solution is a non-starter.

So, rather than bring the kids to the cities, China has opted to bring the city to the countryside — creating entirely new urban centers in the hope that families will remain intact, and parents will not flock to the metropolises for work.

Maybe it will work. For the family profiled by the BBC Magazine, it seems urbanization has made their lives better by far.

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