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Another “China” hiding in county towns
Less traditional than villages and less urbanized than big cities, county towns are easily overlooked. However, they are the essential pieces you need to complete the picture of an authentic China.
In previous posts, Ginger River Review has presented you China's profile from a macro perspective, such as Population, Industrial Upgrade and Taiwan: Some predictions for China in 2030 - Part 1. Busy and bustling metropolises like Beijing and Shanghai are naturally in the spotlight, but many Chinese people choose to live in smaller places, county towns. And the trend might be growing, as the drastic urbanization in China starts to slow down.
The following article was published on 九边, a popular blog on WeChat. The blog is rated by Yinxiang (China-based spinoff of Evernote), as one of the 10 most archived blogs on WeChat in 2021 based on the app's user data. Through different types of families and their plans for the next generation, the author sheds light on the economy, politics, and social dynamics of county towns.
Less traditional than villages and less urbanized than big cities, county towns are easily overlooked. However, they are the essential pieces you need to complete the picture of an authentic China.
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On the Internet, Chinese people often describe county towns as "outdated", which, in many cases, represents towns' backward management level. When looking up online "the largest town in China", one may find that many provincial capitals magically show up in the results, such as Wuhan, Changsha, Shijiazhuang, Jinan, Hefei, and Tianjin...
The most ridiculous results are Xi'an and Nanjing, two capitals with a long history. The only reason I can come up with is that probably locals have higher expectations for their hometown.
[Beware that in the opening, the author mentioned that people in big cities call their cities "county towns". People say that with a sense of self-mockery and black humor in it because sometimes they find something outdated in big cities, and that reminds them of outdated county towns. Hopefully we don't spoil the joke.
Strictly speaking, county towns refer to County-level cities. However, in some developed regions in China, a town could be prosperous and even more developed than some County-level cities. Therefore, broadly speaking, county towns include prefecture-level cities (with capitals of provinces excluded), County-level cities, and some towns. In other words, county towns are places less urbanized than capitals and municipalities, more urbanized than the countryside (Townships 乡 and villages). In this article, the broader meaning of county towns is used.]
[To help you understand this article better, we offer you a brief introduction to the administrative divisions of China. Beware that the introduction is a very general one. China is a big country, so you may find places with a slightly different arrangement of administrative divisions. If you want more detailed information, refer to this article on ZhiHu[In Chinese].(Chinese equivalent of Quora, a question-and-answer website.)]
So what is it like to live in a real county town?
Actually, people living in county towns fall into different categories, which explains the contrasting depictions of counties and towns on the Internet.
The most standard model is ordinary local families, and at least two generations of family members live in the county town. Because after decades of living in the same place, they have many acquaintances, and the older members of those families generally have stable and moderate incomes. As for housing, in the past, they got in apartments allocated by institutions or they built their own houses. Over the years, they may have moved into commercial housing. What is more incomprehensible is that most of the houses and apartments in a county town don't have property ownership certificates, but they are still being traded anyway.
One description of these families is "The end of life could be seen from the 30s." These people do not have big plans for themselves anymore, and what they think about the most is the next generation. Most of these parents are not very educated and not very knowledgeable, and generally do not understand the new things their children are exposed to.
All they care about is education, job, and marriage. In their mind, it's best if their children get into one of the key universities and work in a metropolis after graduation. If so, they would try every means to make a down payment on an apartment for their children.
And if that's not an option, the children should come back home and take the civil service exam, which makes the parents proud and elated. If the children cannot pass the exam to be civil servants, the parents will try their best to pull some strings to get their children "decent" jobs in the government system. Then they will urge their children to get married as soon as possible and they will give a hand with babies.
Families inferior to the standard model, are the ones that come from towns or villages to a county town. In such families, some parents settle in the county town with children, and some buy a house or apartment for their children in the county town.
These families, with their social relations mostly not in the county town, are at a relatively marginal position. This is because in county towns, "networks of people" are strong, and it's not easy for newcomers to fit in. The older members of such families are also mostly worried about the development of their children, and they also prefer that their children come back home to take the civil service exam if they fail to get into key universities in major cities.
The quickest way for such migrant families to integrate into the local society and improve their status in a county town is to get a position in the public sector. Those families lead a relatively mundane life in the county town. And many people's negative impression of county towns mainly comes from them.
Another widely criticized thing about county towns is housing prices. Over the years, the housing prices in the county have also gone up along with the big cities. In many counties with good economies, the price of housing may not differ much from the price of housing in the city of that region.
This has evoked a big problem that the households from townships or rural areas face the nearly the same housing costs in a county town or prefecture-level city, or even at a place with inferior conditions in the provincial capital.
Last year, a vlogger on Douyin said that he had planned to return to the county town. But he was shocked by the high housing prices. Similar new apartments cost 8,000 yuan (about 1,191 U.S. dollars) per square meter in his hometown, but in the city to which the county is subordinated, the price wouldn't surpass 10,000 yuan. The capital city that the vlogger lives in is among those weaker second-tier cities. A good apartment would cost 20,000-30,000 yuan per square meter. But an apartment costing around 10,000 yuan per meter could also be found in a more remote area.
Moreover, more job opportunities are available in a provincial capital than in a county town. Since his parents and relatives live in towns, it does not make much difference for him to move to the county town or to the provincial capital. Therefore, he bought a relatively new apartment in the capital, and plans to exchange it for a better one later.
In his words, "only idiots would buy a house at a price of more than 8,000 yuan per square meter in that awful county town."
In fact, the houses and apartments were not expensive in county towns, but many residents got a great deal of cash compensation from the demolition and construction of new town project around 2016. The rich mostly bought new houses, driving house prices to skyrocket.
The families superior to standard families are mostly wealthy businessmen and the families with members working in the government. These people belong to the elite families in county towns, not only do they hold high economic and social status, but also part of a social circle covering all aspects of life in a county town. Such families live well-off, largely carefree lives. Those who find that life in the county town is simple and wonderful are mostly from families with relatively superior positions in the local community.
Elite families aspire to a better life for their children, so they would spare no efforts to buy apartments in big cities for their children. If the children return to the county town, the best option is for these parents to pull a few strings to get their children positions in the government system, which means, taking the civil service exam. The parents will also provide full support for the children's future development in the county town.
Only such families hold the so-called values that "In county town, you can shop freely with the income just half of what one earns in a big city," and "youngsters in small towns are more willing to spend."
In 2010, Dr. Feng Hongqi 冯红旗 of Peking University, wrote his doctoral dissertation, the famous Cadres in Zhongxian County, after taking a temporary post in central Henan. This article sparked a long and heated discussion on the Internet. The focus of the discussion is on the various ways in which cadres adopted to let their children "inherent" their positions.
Zhongxian County is commonplace among the counties, and "in all walks of life, the next generation inheriting jobs from their parents" is ubiquitous in counties, due to lack of vitality and mobility. Many small businesses, like opening a shop, are run by two or even more generations, and they don't move for decades. However, it might be faster to build one's career as a cadre working in the government system, relying on parents' social connections. Ten to twenty years later, one with connections naturally reach a higher place.
Those with conditions better than elite families, are bosses of local enterprises and high-level local government officials. Children from this background generally do not stay in the county. They would rather go abroad or live in the first-tier cities.
People in county towns are undoubtedly the ones that love being public servants the most.
The huge distinction between working in a county and a big city lies in the county's fewer options. There are only a few types of jobs in a county town, so that many residents only keep two jobs in mind: jobs that put you on the payroll of the government and being a laborer.
One background information needs to be mentioned here. The reasons why county people are keen on the civil service exam is the high proportion of people work in the public sector.
China's public sector arrangement is "replicated all the way down at every level". That is to say, at the top, we got four pillars: The Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, the central government, the National People's Congress, and CPPCC (The Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference). And the same layout is reduplicated downward at the provincial, city and county level, and it stops at the county level. Because if it goes on for smaller places, the bureaucratic system would be too redundant to explode. Moreover, besides the four pillars, main ministries and commissions of the central government are all replicated. For example, the central government has the Ministry of Finance, the provincial government has the corresponding Department of Finance, and the city and county governments also have the Finance Bureau.
Therefore, county towns have relatively complete administrative systems, with a large number of civil servants.In addition, counties are also the places where the medical and educational resources of the nearby area are concentrated, so jobs in public institutions like doctors and teachers are also abundant.
As a result, there are a large number of county residents "receive salaries and subsidies from the government." Generally, a county with a population of hundreds of thousands has about 2,000 public servants, and only officials of the government are counted. If government related institutions such as hospitals and schools are included, the number may exceed 6,000. And if we add retirees and temporary workers, the number of people in a county who depend on the fiscal revenue would easily surpass 10,000.
In addition, the employees of large state-owned enterprises, such as banks, rural credit cooperatives (农村信用合作社) and state-owned telecommunications compnies like China Mobile, China Unicom, are also regarded by the citizens as ones with “descent and stable” jobs.
Approximately 10,000 people definitely account for a high proportion of the population of a county with 100,000 to 200,000 residents.
The proportion is ridiculously high in some places, such as Foping County 佛坪县, a county once aroused heated discussions. There are 8,000 permanent residents in the county, while over 2,000 of them work in or retire from the government agencies or public institutions.
Of course, not all the people mentioned above work in the county town. There are also people in the subordinate towns and villages living on government revenues. Since subordinate towns and villages are so close to the county town, most of these people have homes in the county town. Considering the closer social relationships in counties, almost everyone has relatives and friends who live on government finance.
Comparison would appear when people are in touch with each other. Regardless of civil servants or the staff in public institutions, their working environment, salary and perks are superior than most jobs can offer in county towns. This is the basis for the residents to pursue the civil service exam.
This has become a feature of most county towns in China. It is possible that a county does not have any industries, public servants' consumption could drive the county's economy by using salaries from the government. And all economic activities in the whole county revolve around "public finance".
Now let’s talk about incomes in the county towns.
It differs significantly from place to place, but it is definitely lower than the level of big cities. However, you cannot compare salaries directly. Because only salaries of the same job in different places can be compared.
There are many high-paying jobs in big cities, which are non-existent in counties. Therefore, relatives in county towns don't understand how younsters' could earn high salaries in big cities with jobs that they never heard of before. They don't believe youngsters have serious jobs and the high pay will last for long, so they would advise youngsters to come back and get a job in public institutions as soon as possible.
In general, the citizens in ordinary counties mostly have the income of around 2,000 to 3,000 yuan on average. A handful of citizens hold high-paying jobs, but the scale is too small to be counted.
Moreover, most of the private enterprises in counties do not have a sound employee benefits system. Some companies cover only one or two insurance schemes or the lowest plan in the schemes for employees. Many companies don't even buy employees insurance, and give employees directly the money that should have been expenses for insurance.
[Editor's note: China's Social Security System consists of five mandatory insurance schemes (pension fund, medical insurance, industrial injury insurance, unemployment insurance, and maternity insurance), and a housing fund]
The comparison highlights the advantages of living on government finances. Because civil servants' incomes are based on positions and levels, and incomes in different places across the country don't make much difference. Moreover, the government generally would buy employees full insurance schemes, paying a high proportion of the expenses.
Thus, even from an economic point of view, taking civil service exams and chasing jobs in the government, is cost-effective in county towns. In ordinary counties, the wages of public servants exceed the average income. Other jobs may provide the same or even higher salaries, but if insurance is taken into consideration, the real income of public servants still beats that of other jobs.
Some people say that it is difficult for civil servants to get promoted, which is true, and nowadays people don't shun away from “political resources”. That is to say, if two work in the same institution, the one with political resources will be promoted more quickly. No one will complain much, because everyone has come to terms with the reality within a year or two after graduation.
On the whole, as long as one's ability, luck, and emotional intelligence are at the average level, nothing big happens, people on this route end up almost the same place. After 20 years of work, they can be promoted to section chief level 科级 (commonly called division chief 处长 in counties, which is one level higher). Although, in many cases, the promotion only offers better treatment, rather than the actual power. But it is enough in the social circle of a county town. Due to low mobility, grassroot officials get to know a bunch of people in different departments, people who may give them a hand when they are in need.
The same is true for doctors and teachers, because it is not difficult to be a chief physician or a senior teacher after years of accumulation.
So, it is reasonable for the residents of county towns to be more respectful toward those living on government finances.
Of course, a future division chief or future chief physician is worth people's respect. In comparison, a white-collar worker with so-called tens of thousands of monthly salaries, is someone who comes back from big cities to live for a few days only during the Chinese New Year. White-collar workers thus are not important people in the residents' eyes, because the residents do not believe life in big cities could endure, so what's the point of earning more in the short term?
Besides, maintaining a friendly relationship with local civil servants and doctors may be useful when they need their help. Not a penny earned by white-collar workers goes into their pockets, so why do they care about those who have moved to big cities?
Unless you give out folks money like Liu Qiangdong, the CEO of JD.com, then everyone will turn to flatter you and toss the chiefs aside.
Now let's have a look at the consumption in county towns. In a word, with China's developed logistics, the prices of goods in the whole nation are similar.
Commodities are now sold almost at the same price across the nation and even across the globe. County towns also have a lot of supplies shipped from the outside, so there aren't many differences between the prices of goods in big cities and those in county towns.
However, labor costs and shop rents are relatively low in county towns, so if these two factors play a big role in some services, or when it comes to local seasonal products, county towns would give consumers a better experience. The most obvious example is food and drinks. When food vloggers shoot in the counties, many of them highly praise the volume of each dish before tasting. In the bullet screen [a popular function of video sites in China that allows viewers to send real-time comments to fly across the screen like bullets in the video], comments are all about “so hungry for this, the food would cost at least XX yuan in XX city”.
But products shipped from other places are more expensive, due to logistics and rounds of transactions.
Many say that most county towns are relatively more closed and conservative. This is true, because county towns have relatively low population mobility, large proportion of the residents are the elderly, and many people work in traditional industries and public institutions. As a result, people in county towns are less exposed to the outside world. Sometimes, popular things in big cities are not that welcomed in county towns. Because people's minds are hard to change once formed.
Therefore, the entertainment activities remain largely traditional in the county towns. It is easy to get friends to go to karaokes and sing together, or play mahjong and poker. If you want to go drinking with others, you won't go home soberly. But if you want to play murder mystery games, not many would understand what you are talking about.
Lack of mobility makes county towns less dynamic. On the one hand, we can call them "tranquille". On the other hand, "dead still" is also the right word to describe them.
Here I want to talk about some common complaints about county towns.
First, county towns are a nepotistic society. Big city loners with social phobia can't stand such tight social bonds, so complaining about annoying relatives is always popular every year after the Chinese new year vacation, when white-collars go back to cities from hometown.
[社恐 social phobia in Chinese is originally an acronym for 社交恐惧症 (social abxiety disorder.) The original term refers to a serious psychological disorder that needs medical intervention, but the phrase has been generalized in Chinese. Now, it's used to describe ordinary people when they don't feel like talking to others.]
Second, in county towns, people prefer handling affairs through personal connections, even if they could have things done smoothly in normal procedures. Third, people in county towns hold an almost religious yearning for "cadres". For example, the dining tables often serve as the social center of county towns, and the best seats are always reserved for guests with public duties. If officials from government departments of higher levels came to county towns, the best seats would be theirs, even if the local cadres are of the same rank. Fourth, people in county towns like to gossip about others, so anything would easily reach everyone in just a few days.
The root behind all this, is that county towns are halfway between villages and cities. Many things cannot operate according to modern rules, and are under the power of traditional customs of folk society, which could not be publically applied. Therefore, the traditional customs have become unspoken rules.
For unspoken rules to exist, there must be consensus, and in many cases, the consent of the majority. If someone disagrees and breaks the unspoken rules, the majority would step in.
For example, if two people get in a fight and one is injured, it would be like "the loser goes to the hospital and the winner goes to jail" in cities. But in county towns, as long as the case does not upgrade into a criminal case, there's room for things to turn around. The attacker's family will find the injured one's family through all kinds of ways, and try every means to persuade the injured one's family not to bring the case to court, so that the situation "cools down".
The most important thing to do in this tug-of-war is to find “someone respectable” recognized by both parties to host the reconciliation.
The attacker aims to avoid legal responsibility, while the injured seek spiritual and material compensation. Generally speaking, the process includes financial compensation, going to the injured person's home to apologize, a word of promise to never do the same thing again. In every step of the reconciliation process, both parties will find their own witnesses. When the process is done, the results would be made public to maintain the reputation of the injured person.
There are hold-outs in land expropriation and resettlement projects. The law may permit bulldozers to destroy the houses directly. But in reality, who dares to do so? In county towns, the first thing is to get a name list of the hold-outs and negotiate with them one by one. One of the common methods is to get their family and friends on board, and talk some senses into them.
For example, a county town's land expropriation and resettlement project was hindered by 22 hold-outs. The local Party Committee Secretary selected 22 cadres, all of whom were relatives within three generations of the hold-outs. He gave out orders that cadres who failed to persuade the hold-outs to relocate would be suspended from work. Salaries and bonuses would also be suspended. In the end, the deputy director of the county's tax bureau had to bring his personal stuff and live at his brother-in-law's for five days. He begged for five days, and finally changed his brother-in-law's mind.
Unspoken rules are part of almost every incident handled in county towns, as long as they are not seriously illegal. Therefore, people have developed an instinct. No matter what happens, they like to pull a few strings and go with the unspoken rules.
The operation of this system indicates that the county town is an "acquaintance society" 人情社会, which means people try their best to connect with others. Moreover, people should be very close . In other words, the social network must be a dense one, so that if anything happens, you can fall on the safety network. That is why people in county towns are keen on social events and connecting with others. In this way, they make sure that they are firmly tied into the entire interpersonal network, so others will lend a helping hand and unspoken rules are accessible to you.
Just like the classic scene at the beginning of the movie Godfather, the funeral parlour came to the Godfather for “justice”. The Godfather said that ever since the funeral parlour's business took off, he cut off their relationship. Now the funeral parlour wants help, and even offers money. Is this a payment?
The same is true for people and things in county towns. A very low valuation of someone is that "On normal days, he doesn't make friends with others. When he needs help, he prepares a feast. However, no one comes."
Respect toward cadres also roots in this. To make unspoken rules work, other than the recognition of the majority, "people with reputation" are also needed to mediate between different parties once dispute breaks out. The mediator must have an identity recognized by all, and he also should be unbiased. It's best if he is good with words and is able to convince everyone by reasoning.
In a county town, the most suitable mediators are cadres, especially native cadres in office (their ranks don't need to be very high) that everyone is familiar with, who are good at mediating and communicating.
As I mentioned above, there is a high proportion of people living on government finances in county towns, and there are also many cadres. Compared with the rich, people are more likely to agree with cadres. Because the cadres have stable jobs, relatively high incomes, and some power to do favors for others, which makes joining the public servants so attractive.
Some may ask, are there any opportunities to make a fortune in county towns?
In fact, just like in big cities, making a fortune relies on luck, courage, and planning ahead.
Profitable products in big cities will soon show up in county towns. If you find something not showing up in your hometown, don't rush into the thinking of filling "the gap of lower-tier markets". Because it might be the case that the product is not suitable for the local market, especially for reasons you don't know because you don't live there. If you plunge into business abruptly, you might end up in a trap.
Moreover, the residents of county towns would feel surprised at your fall. "Only the blind would fall into such an obvious trap", they might say. What a double whammy!
I have seen with my own eyes that booming businesses in cities failed in county towns, such as JK uniforms [the abbreviation of the Japanese word “Joshi Koukousei”, which means Japanese high school uniforms for girls. It's a clothing style popular among young girls in China], garage kits [anime figure models]，Anglo pet ferrets, card games and escape room games, and many others. Most of them were only popular for a few days and went out of business quickly because of insufficient customers. However, there are “cost-efficient substitutes” available in county towns, which is basically cheaper versions of various goods in big cities.
For example, a cup of milk tea would cost 20 to 30 yuan in big cities, but it would only cost eight yuan in county towns. But the difference is that neither milk nor tea are added to the county town's milk tea. It's the mixture of food additives and sugar, but people still can't get enough of it.
In the meantime, some people get rich by other means.
Monopoly is one of the means. Ores, agricultural products, and local specialties, any of them will do. I once read a report that someone in Baoding, a county town in north China's Hebei province, was illegally selling river sand. And he earned 1.57 million yuan (around 233,100 U.S. dollars) a night.
Some monopolize sales. For example, reports on cracking down evil forces said that gangs monopolize the sales of several vegetables in wholesale markets. A county's gangs could reach tens of millions yuan of profit every year.
This case is often the result of acquaintance society in county towns, because close interpersonal relationships lead to less supervision. Unless someone causes serious troubles, the system would continue to operate.
However, many county towns are now plagued by a big problem, which is big cities' attractiveness. Especially in the last two decades, with the growing urbanization rate nationwide, county towns have suffered from a severe loss of young people, and many of them moved to larger cities. As a young man settles in a big city, generations' wealth of his family might come to big cities with him. This is a major factor in the sharp rise of housing prices in big cities.
Manpower is the basis of everything. Although some residents from subordinate towns and villages would move to county towns, the inflow and outflow don't balance. Therefore, a problem has become acute: the hollowing out of certain county towns.
In ancient times, county towns were established because people and goods moved slowly.
Thus a transit station was naturally formed some distance away. However, as the speed of logistics goes up, setting a county government every 50 kilometers or so seems unnecessary.
But with the increasing speed of mobility these days, a county government every hundred miles or so seems unnecessary in many cases. So over the years, many county-level administrative divisions have disappeared. Most of them were subordinate counties of big cities, they turned into districts because of urbanization, and a few are counties with too small a population and jurisdiction so that they have merged into larger counties.
In addition, many counties with average economic development have encountered major financial problems in the last decade or so.
As many of you may know, after Tax-Sharing Reform, there are uneven distribution of fiscal powers and responsibilities between the local and the central government. The central government balances financial revenues among different places through transfer payments. Except for a few developed provinces, other places' fiscal revenues are lower than the transfer payments from the central government.
Therefore, many counties face relatively greater financial pressure, transfer payments provided by the state would be allocated to the provincial capitals and key cities first. The remaining funds for counties generally could only cover daily operation of the government. More funds are needed if counties seek economic development.
However, most counties do not have enough funds to support development. Without funds there is no development, and without economic development there is no more fiscal revenue. And it has become a vicious circle.
Therefore, many county governments have issued a large number of local bonds in these years, and because of their low administrative level, they can only issue a limited number of bonds issued. So counties turn to investment companies to raise money.
These bonds promise higher interest than regular ones. I once heard of a bond with an annualized rate of return reaching 17 percent. The project description was that a county in central China planned to renovate local facilities. With such an absurd interest rate, the project was undoubtedly postponed.
On the whole, only a small number of county towns have developed and are on a right track. Many counties wasted large sums of money. In the end, the infrastructure of county towns does get better, but the industries remain the same. So the investment has not produced profit, which means the money was wasted. And some counties have left a number of unfinished projects due to insufficient funding.
But the borrowed money must be repaid, which leaves many counties with very tight finances, and the annual revenues are not even enough to pay the interest. In recent years, there are headlines from time to time saying that local governments are unable to pay investors when bonds mature.
I wrote an article Most Small Cities May be Doomed to be "Hegangized" . I think that the same is true for most county towns.
Everyone might feel that the violent urbanization in China has slowed down significantly in the past several years. Maybe more people start to rethink their life and the society, especially after the outbreak of COVID-19. Many people went back to county towns with savings accumulated in the first-tier and second-tier cities, but it is not clear whether they would fit in.
Moreover, high housing prices in big cities will push many young people back to county towns because their mediocre educational background won't give them an edge in big cities. In this way, people will tend to settle in county towns and China's society will gradually stabilize.
The gap in total wealth between big cities and county towns will certainly continue to widen, but not so much in the quality of life.
In fact, everyone may already feel that there aren't many differences in the quality of life between small towns and big cities. Basically, the products used by residents of big cities are also available for people in county towns. The only difference may be that the former selects big brands, while the latter uses homogenized products without a brand, which can be reliable and cheap. When I went back to my hometown, I had this feeling that everything available in Beijing is also available in my hometown, just with a cheaper version.
This is how a mature society works. Every individual has a position in the society, one can either make a living in big cities or lead a stable life in county towns. Everyone can find their own place. With a sound state of mind, everyone can live well.