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June 21, 2011

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Rich farmers don't have to till the soil

LIFE is so good in some of Shanghai's rural suburbs that many rich farmers don't farm anymore, they enjoy new houses and hold shares in collectively owned projects. Hu Min investigates.

Fifty-year-old Chen Baokang, a farmer in Lianming Village, hasn't had to plant grain, cotton and vegetables since 2000. He rents out his two-story house, earns dividends on a collectively owned project and receives various local government subsidies. And he works for the village's Party committee.

"I ride an electric bike to work, but that doesn't mean I can't afford to buy a car - I just don't think it necessary," Chen says.

He bought a 100-square-meter apartment in Jiuting, Songjiang District in western Shanghai, and rents out his old 180-square-meter residence in the village.

Chen is one of many success stories in Lianming Village of around 2,200 people that owes its prosperity to the Party's policies of reform and opening up. It is the third largest of nine villages in Qibao Town of Minhang District. All are prospering and Lianming isn't the richest.

And there are quite a few "Lianming Villages" in Songjiang District and elsewhere in the Shanghai suburbs.

Chen - and all the other farmers interviewed - decline to reveal their income. But they are known as "rich farmers" because of their land and are financially better off than many city dwellers.

From 1990 to 2000 Chen gradually lost his 3-mu (about 1,998 square meters) of farmland to urban sprawl. He got a 15-year pension subsidy from the local government, which means he doesn't need to pour his own money into his pension fund for 15 years.

His livelihood has improved significantly over the decades.

"I made a living by farming for about 30 years, and great changes have taken place in my life over the decades thanks to the reform and opening-up policy."

In the 1990s, Chen started selling his fruits and vegetables, a capitalist practice that was not allowed during the years of the planned economy. In 2000, he bought his home (non-subsidized) in Jiuting.

He has a stable income and steady profits.

Despite the rent and his income, he gets around 10,000 yuan (US$1,538) in subsidies from the district government every year, including a 2,400-yuan subsidy of utility costs and a 4,000-yuan subsidy of property management fees.

In 1980, he earned around 800 yuan and it was hard to make ends meet.

The change has been dramatic.

"I live well and my housing and income have improved greatly over the decades. I feel happy and satisfied," he says with a big smile.

Chen is not the richest person in the village. Others with larger houses than his received more compensation when they had to make way for urban progress. They usually received three or four apartments totaling about 260 square meters on average. Around 40-50 percent of the villagers own at least one car.

The per capita disposable income of farmers in the village averages more than 20,000 yuan a year.

Chen is also one of the beneficiaries of - in fact, a shareholder in - the Lianmingyayuan project on collectively owned land. The polluting factory on the site was closed down and residents pooled their money for a new housing project for white-collar professionals from outside of Shanghai.

In 2008, 608 households invested 150,000 yuan each for its construction. They were promised a 7-percent return on their money every year, to be paid out of rents and other income-producing properties controlled by the village.

Yang Zhirong, Party secretary of the village, says residents came up with the idea of funding the project themselves. It cost 93 million yuan.

"The village is not rich, and we had planned to apply for bank loans at first," Yang explains. "But then the villagers said they could provide the money."

The plan was unanimously approved as a good way to make efficient use of excess land and give villagers some investment income, Yang says.

More than 6 million yuan has flowed back to investors in January. All of the 404 units of residential complex have been rented out, Yang says.

There are no more people in the village who make their living through farming. They work as security guards, cleaners or work at factories, and rent out their properties, says Party Secretary Yang.

The district government also provides various subsidies for education, property management fees, utility fees, physical exams and even travel farmers, he says.

Wang Yili, a farmer in Qinjian Village, Pujiang Town, is also happy about her life in Minhang District.

Wang, 28, recently left her new home in Shanghai's southwest to pay a visit to her aunt in Hongkou District in the city's northeast. The trip took around one and a half hours.

"It was unimaginable in the past. Going to downtown meant going to the 'city' and took as long as half day," she says. "It's now very convenient for us to go to the city center."

Six new stations are now planned for Metro Line 8, stretching south to the Luhui area in Minhang District. The 6.2-kilometer extension will reduce traffic in the southern part of Pujiang Town.

Wang used to live at a three-story house built by her family at Qinjian Village. The second and third floors were erected later to make better use of space.

The family was relocated to Jingshuyuan three years ago. They got two apartments - one 120 square meters, the other 90 square meters.

"Even when friends and relatives from downtown areas visit my home, they envy us," she says.

Wang used to go shopping in Puxi area, which meant a trek involving ferry and transfer of buses. It took hours. Now shopping is minutes away and she walks.

Like many other young people, Wang enjoys online surfing.

"I applied for broadband access when I lived in the village, but failed for two years due to poor communications conditions, now I have access," Wang says.

Pujiang Town has about 40,000 farmers, the largest number in Minhang.

The per capita disposable income of farmers in Pujiang has been increasing steadily. It reached 8,966 yuan in 2006, 10,645 yuan in 2007, 11,752 yuan in 2008, 13,003 yuan in 2009 and 14,523 yuan in 2010. Almost 100 percent (99.8 percent) of farmers in the town have health insurance. Last year the government invested 42.62 million yuan in the area, compared with 13.96 million yuan in 2007.

Many farmers in Minhang have new roles nowadays - shareholders. They invest in projects with collectively owned land or property and get dividends. Sun Caiqin, a farmer of the Jixin Village in Meilong, received 4,000 yuan early this year for her investment of 80,000 yuan in a project a year ago.

Increasing the income of farmers tops the government's agenda.

"We should let farmers share the fruits of urbanization," says Sun Chao, Party secretary of Minhang District.

The increase of per capita disposable income of rural residents has surpassed that of urban dwellers for seven consecutive years in Minhang.

Last year, disposable income for urban dwellers in Minhang averaged 27,400 yuan, or 1.54 times that of rural residents in the district. At the end of the current Five-Year Plan, the income gap ratio is projected to narrow to 1.3.

Guo Jie at his 30s makes a living by growing vegetables in Dongfeng Village. He is planting rice on a trial basis and hopes to become a "rice paddy king."

Guo moved from Anhui Province 12 years ago and rented 40,000 square meters of farmland. He lives in a three-story house with his wife and two children.

"Shanghai is a booming city, so I made up my mind to come here to explore opportunities," he says. Over the past 12 years he only returned home once.

"I am satisfied with my life and I enjoy farming," he says. "Farming technology has improved greatly."


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