On campus to screen his documentary The Land of Many Palaces, Adam James Smith discussed the Chinese ghost-city Ordos and the urban migration of millions of Chinese farmers.
PROVO, Utah (February 24, 2015)—In Inner Mongolia, a northern autonomous region of the People’s Republic of China, along China’s border with Mongolia, there is a city called Ordos.
The city boasts state-of-the-art government building and business towers, modern theaters and museums – but the well-paved streets and smooth sidewalks are ground to hardly anyone. Ordos, which is one of the first purpose-built cities in a rural region in the western part of China, was designed to accommodate one million people, and yet it’s nearly empty.
The Land of Many Palaces, a documentary film directed and produced by Adam James Smith and Song Ting, and co-produced by Wang Qihan, follows a government official as she tries to convince rural farmers that their lives will be better off in the city. The film also depicts a farmer in one of the last-remaining regional villages who is pressured to move.
Smith, who visited campus for a screening of and lecture on the film, said: “Ordos was being used as a testing ground by the central government to see how it might go about replicating the process of taking a rural region, building a city and relocating the rural population into the city, [and] then, industrializing the agriculture in the region that the farmers had vacated when they moved into the city.”
The Chinese government now plans to build hundreds of these new purpose-built cities all across the country. Just like in Ordos, farmers will inhabit the cities.
“What interested us is how do you take people who have no experience of living in a city and put them in a city? How will that work? How will they adapt to urban life? What kinds of occupations will they have? How will they live around each other in an appropriate way? And will these kinds of cities thrive? Can they have a thriving economy and a thriving populace who are engaged in honorable occupations?” Smith said.
The film initially began as a research project on this new city of Ordos, which Smith and Ting read about in Time magazine. “We had so many questions,” Smith said, “Who built it, who was it built for and who would eventually live there?”
Smith and Ting were keen on having a government worker in the film because they wanted to show the two prominent perspectives of the situation: the perspective of the government and the perspective of the rural farmers.
The perspective of the government came from a young woman named Xiaomei. “Her job basically involved going out into villages to persuade farmers to move into the city, and once they were there, to help them adapt to urban life,” Smith said. “So, because she worked for the government, we had to get some kind of approval from her leader, who she had to report back to.”
Her leader approved the film, although they did have to get each scene involving Xiaomei approved by her leader.
Workers in the city’s propaganda department approved of their project because previous press about Ordos focused on the city’s seeming shortcomings: that is, it was a ghost-city, it was empty, and it was a failure.
“The city was really embarrassed about this negative press,” Smith said, “or what they viewed as negative press. But, because our project was showing how actually the city was becoming inhabited and people were moving in, the government was actually quite keen on our project. We were showing this other story about how the city was becoming populated.”
According to Smith, urbanization in China, generally speaking, is universally viewed as a positive thing: “Even people living in rural areas, even the farmers, they all agree, to some extent, that people can have a better life in the city.”
Smith noted that oftentimes in the West, rural life is perceived in a romantic way. “You’re a farmer or a cowboy,” Smith said. “But in China, it’s really tied to people viewing it as somewhat backward, impoverished and somewhat unpleasant.”
Over the next fifteen years, Ordos will be just one of many cities meant to house 250 million relocated farmers who are trying to make a life in new urban districts all across China. “These new cities, like Ordos, which will house an entirely rural population – people who don’t have experience with urban life – encounter many issues that are becoming apparent,” said Smith. “A lot of these people that are moving in are illiterate or partially illiterate. They’re not used to living around other people. They’re not used to living in an apartment building. They’re not used to having a formal job.”
The purpose-built cities offer classes on all of these subjects to help ease the transition from rural to urban. “They’ve introduced all sorts of classes and educational programs to try and educate these people on how to survive in the city,” Smith said.
According to Smith, if the central government is successful in its pursuit to relocate 250 million rural farmers to purpose-built cities in the next fifteen to twenty years, this movement will constitute the largest and fastest rural-urban migration in the history of the world.
Historically known as “the land of many palaces,” due to the palatial-sized tents erected in the region by Mongol warriors, the area of Ordos is once again a land of many palaces: an entire city occupied by21st-century mansions, waiting for its residents to follow.
—Danielle Chelom Leavitt (B.A. Russian ‘15)
Images (Courtesy of Adam Smith)