The Biggest Losers In China's Massive Urbanization Plan

As the country plans to seize farmers' land and move them into more populous, resettled areas to drive the economy, it's clear who the losers will be.

A farmer working at a paddy field
A farmer working at a paddy field
Zhong Ang


BEIJING — Early this year China rolled out its blueprint for urbanization reform. The central government regards urbanization not only as a historic mission of modernization but also as the greatest potential for expanding domestic demand.

An investment feast is about to come. As forecast in the Plan For Promoting Healthy Urban Development (2011-2020) led by the National Development and Reform Commission, Chinese urbanization will activate 40 trillion RMB ($6 trillion) of investment over the next decade.

The essence of urbanization is to reform man-land relations. To begin with, the transferred and concentrated land will break with existing scattered farming operations. The use of machines and modern techniques will raise the scale of farming, enhance the product value and release a great amount of surplus labor. The surplus labor will in turn be resettled in concentrated and newly built towns. Meanwhile, the land resulting from the merging of villages will bring money rolling into the various levels of government.

This will result in a significant change in both traditional farming methods and in an agricultural lifestyle created thousands of years ago.

But as people enthusiastically talk about how domestic demand is to be stimulated, how macroeconomic development is to be maintained, how it is fortunate that land financing will continue and local government debt crises are to be solved, how there are business investment opportunities and the prosperous prospects for related industries, it becomes obvious that those who will be most affected by reform — the voices from farming, from rural places and from farmers themselves — are scarcely heard at all.

As some industry people put it, this is similar to the policy in which China gave subsidies to farmers who bought designated home appliances. Though the government put in billions to subsidize these rural dwellers of very modest income, they nonetheless still questioned whether it was really for them or simply a ploy to help the appliance businesses. One farmer complained that the solar water heater he bought did not function with the rural water and broke very quickly. And of course it was extremely troublesome to get it fixed in the countryside.

Likewise, it’s not hard to understand why the relocated farmers might find that apartments are not suited for them to dry their grains, rear their livestock and park their farming machinery after their houses have been forcibly demolished. Meanwhile, the authorities just reap the profits, from tens to hundreds of times the price difference, by swapping land with farmers and putting it to auction on the market.

Farmers get the short stick

One Zhejiang official responsible for land affairs worries that while various local authorities demolish villages and build apartments, they are not considering the farmers’ real needs. He says that without job placements farmers won’t stay in these new towns. They are bound to leave for bigger cities still and these new places will become ghost towns.

It is fair to say that urbanization will release a potential “land bonus” and provide a new impetus for China’s future development. And it’s also true that urbanization will free farmers from the land, pushing them to work in cities and boost China’s production. The problem is — and nobody can deny this — that farmers will not really reap the benefits of the land bonus.

Even though the farmers are relocated to apartments and are given some compensation, their new homes become nothing but “homesteads.” They are not permitted to sell them publicly because of what should be an obsolete regulation, a vestige of the Chinese Communist land policy of the 1950s. Meanwhile, the local authorities can change the nature of the land they had exchanged with the farmer and turn it into a moneymaker.

Any reform should take into account the interests of those directly affected. Alas, in China, the reality is that people who never take public transport are studying the public transport pricing policy. And people who eat specially supplied foods — a privilege of Beijing’s high flyers — are the ones formulating food safety policy.

When the people responsible for urbanization reform are viewing it from a macro-economic level and promoting it from the angle of solving urban and local government problems and related industrial development, it’s no wonder that farmers’ interests are neglected and sacrificed.

At this moment, when a new round of urbanization is in full swing, all levels of government ought to change their top-to-bottom way of thinking. They should consider and ensure farmers’ real needs and interests, improve their employment prospects, the household registration system, housing, education, and support systems such as social security and health care. After all, the main battlefield of urbanization reform is where the local farmers live, which they have relied on for their livings for generations.

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport


Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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