Another Great Leap Forward

What happens to humanity and the earth when millions of rural subsistence farmers are incentivised to sell their land, ditch their agrarian way of life and learn to live as middle class consumers in one of China’s newly constructed urban provinces?

In this #FutureofCities story, photographer Justin Jin takes a look at China’s current mega-scheme in social engineering; a mammoth plan to encourage future economic growth by transforming the country’s rural dwellers into urban, domestic consumers.

These images were shot in Hebei province, just outside Beijing, as part of a larger body of work in which Justin travelled through Chinese cities, meeting people who have been caught up in China's latest social upheaval.

  • Hebei 1

    Justin Jin

    Hebei

    Sony α7S, Vario-Tessar T* FE 24-70mm F4 ZA OSS lens, (F-Stop: 7.1, Shutter: 1/125, ISO: 100)

    Hebei Province, China. A man walks through a ‘replacement’ housing estate built to compensate farmers for their lost land as the Chinese government urbanises large swathes of the countryside.

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  • Hebei 14

    Justin Jin

    Hebei

    Sony α7S, Vario-Tessar T* FE 24-70mm F4 ZA OSS lens, (F-Stop: 11, Shutter: 1/200, ISO: 100)

    Hebei Province, China. A 66-year-old sheep farmer says he dreads moving into an apartment because of the lack of food security.

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  • Hebei 2

    Justin Jin

    Hebei

    Sony α7S, Vario-Tessar T* FE 24-70mm F4 ZA OSS lens, (F-Stop: 11, Shutter: 1/500, ISO: 200)

    Hebei Province, China. A demolition worker breaks down old houses to reclaim building material.

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  • Hebei

    Justin Jin

    Hebei

    Sony α7S, Vario-Tessar T* FE 24-70mm F4 ZA OSS lens, (F-Stop: 4, Shutter: 1/200, ISO: 400)

    Hebei Province, China. A couple greet their former village neighbours as they move into their new relocation housing built over recently cleared farmland. In a move to increase the size of China’s middle class and boost demand, the government intends to move 100 million people from the countryside into cities by 2020. In many cases farmers are being moved off their land and compensated for their loss with flats in new housing developments.

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  • Hebei 8

    Justin Jin

    Hebei

    Sony α7S, Vario-Tessar T* FE 24-70mm F4 ZA OSS lens, (F-Stop: 4, Shutter: 1/60, ISO: 12800)

    Hebei Province, China. A couple move into their apartment in their ‘replacement’ housing estate.

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  • Hebei 12

    Justin Jin

    Hebei

    Sony α7S, Vario-Tessar T* FE 24-70mm F4 ZA OSS lens, (F-Stop: 10, Shutter: 1/160, ISO: 100)

    Hebei Province, China. A ‘replacement’ housing estate in Hebei Province, China.

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  • Hebei 6

    Justin Jin

    Hebei

    Sony α7S, Vario-Tessar T* FE 24-70mm F4 ZA OSS lens, (F-Stop: 4, Shutter: 1/125, ISO: 12800)

    Hebei Province, China. The construction boom has caused widespread air pollution.

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  • Hebei 7

    Justin Jin

    Hebei

    Sony α7S, Vario-Tessar T* FE 24-70mm F4 ZA OSS lens, (F-Stop: 11, Shutter: 1/800, ISO: 200)

    Hebei Province, China. Workers walk on a road paved over recently reclaimed farmland.

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  • Hebei 10

    Justin Jin

    Hebei

    Sony α7S, Vario-Tessar T* FE 24-70mm F4 ZA OSS lens, (F-Stop: 11, Shutter: 1/200, ISO: 200)

    Hebei Province, China. Estate agents wait for clients in front of commercial residential blocks built over farmland.

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  • Hebei 15

    Justin Jin

    Hebei

    Sony α7S, Vario-Tessar T* FE 24-70mm F4 ZA OSS lens, (F-Stop: 11, Shutter: 1/160, ISO: 100)

    A woman walks her granddaughter at their relocation housing estate built over land they lost in Hebei Province, China.

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  • Hebei 11

    Justin Jin

    Hebei

    Sony α7S, Vario-Tessar T* FE 24-70mm F4 ZA OSS lens, (F-Stop: 7.1, Shutter: 1/100, ISO: 200)

    Beijing, China. Devoid of land, but flushed with relative luxury, farmers can enjoy leisure activities previously unimagined.

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Justin Jin, April 2015

“For generations, Chinese farmers tilled small family plots. Right up until the 20th century, the country was predominantly agrarian, leading Mao to adapt traditional Marxist thinking to muster rural workers to the revolutionary cause.

Faced with slowing exports, China's Communist leaders are pushing ahead with a historic plan to move 100 million rural residents into towns and cities by 2020 to create a new middle class and boost demand.  The logic behind these gargantuan plans is that the economy is slowing down and the way to bring about further growth is through raising domestic consumption. Rural dwellers consume what they produce and buy few manufactured goods. Moving them off the land and into the cities should get them consuming domestically produced products and infrastructure projects to accommodate them should encourage further growth.

On the surface, the deal for farmers willing to sell up looks tempting. They are given their new apartments in one of the thousands of identical tower blocks for free and are compensated for the loss of their land by a one-off payment. In reality, however, corruption at local level, coercion to move and a complete lack of social infrastructure in the newly built cities has made many a once hopeful migrant's experience into a nightmare.”

As a non-resident Chinese, Justin views the situation both as a concerned citizen and a questioning outsider. As he crisscrosses the country talking with farmers, he gets a feeling the government’s maths might be right, but wonders at the long-term consequences for society.

 

About Justin Jin

Justin crosses borders, mountains and permafrost to tell powerful human stories. He began his career as a Reuters correspondent writing about social and economic issues, where he eventually became head of an eight-person team in Southern China.

Justin’s background in journalism has continued to inform his current independent work on multidisciplinary photography and video projects for high profile clients including National Geographic, Sunday Times, Stern and Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum.

Justin was born in Hong Kong in 1974 and educated in philosophy and political science at Britain’s prestigious Cambridge University. His photography work has received numerous accolades including a Magnum Foundation Emergency Fund grant, a POYi award and a World Press Photo masterclass scholarship.

Justin is now based in Brussels and is a member of Panos Pictures.

 

Interview

What inspired you to shoot this story for the #FutureofCities campaign?”

I first reported on China in the late 1990’s as a Beijing-based correspondent for Reuters, writing extensively about the socialist country’s rapid transition to market economy.

The big question at that time was whether a developing country burdened by state-owned behemoths could shed its heavy industry and re-tool millions of laid-off workers to produce consumer gadgets in nimbler setups. China pulled off an economic miracle.

This year, faced with slowing exports, Communist leaders are pushing ahead with a gigantic, historic plan to move 100 million rural residents into towns and cities by the year 2020 in order to boost domestic demand in infrastructure and goods.

These numbers are almost unfathomable, but through the individual farmers swept up by these abrupt changes, I aim to photograph an economic phenomenon shaping the world’s new super power.

Describe the moment you knew photography changed your life

Photography keeps changing my life because it encourages me to step into the world. Each story, situation and subject teaches me something new. 

If you could sum up your work in one word or one sentence, what would that be?

Distilling complex geo-political situations into personal, meaningful stories.

Talk to us about your bucket list... what is on the top of that list of things to photograph?

I like to create stories that take in historical contexts, make sense of present geopolitical dynamics, and point to the future. My next project will be similar in scope.

Within that, I try to capture fleeting moments that tell the larger story. 

What is the most remarkable person, place or thing you have ever photographed?

A Neo-Nazi who was attacking me and my friend with a stone in eastern Germany. 

Give us your thoughts about the Global Imaging Ambassadors programme?

It’s a great opportunity to collaborate with a camera company that is clearly looking into the future and with a group of esteemed photographers who are blazing their own paths. 

What is your favourite Sony camera of the moment (explain why)?

The α7S is silent, fast and razor sharp; a fantastic camera. 

 

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