A portrait in miniature of China's transformation

"I can't keep a pig or grow any vegetables, I have to buy everything from the shops," 70-year-old Jin Zhongzen complains.

Mr Jin is a man whose life has been utterly transformed.

Three years ago he lived in a mudbrick courtyard house in White Horse Village, a sleepy village in a verdant valley in Wuxi County, western China.

He was one of several hundred million Chinese farmers still eking out a living on tiny plots of land, a way of life unchanged for hundreds of years.

Today, Mr Jin can still be found in the same valley, but home is now a sixth-floor apartment. The valley floor has been concreted over and White Horse Village has been demolished, replaced by a city - Wuxi New Town.

What has happened to Mr Jin and to White Horse Village is emblematic of one of the most important stories of our time, the story of whether Beijing can take an ancient brooding hinterland of subsistence farmers and drag it into the narrative of a rising 21st Century superpower.

Far away in Beijing the Communist Party decreed that inland China must be modernised and urbanised.

Five hundred million subsistence farmers were to be lifted from poverty and brought into the story of China's economic miracle by creating cities and jobs for them at home, rather than them being forced to travel to coastal China to get ahead.

It is easy to trot out platitudes about change in China and to reel off lists of staggering numbers.

But the scale and speed of China's transformation are best understood when you put a camera and microphone into one community and observe it over time. That is what we have done in White Horse Village.

I first visited in 2005 and a year later we went back to begin recording the birth of a city.

Few people have heard of Wuxi County, let alone White Horse Village, and in a sense that is why we chose it.

Tucked in behind the mountain walls that rise to the north of the Yangtze River's famous Three Gorges, White Horse Village had always been a backwater, too remote to play a role in China's triumphs or its catastrophes.

In 2006, the valley was as it had been for centuries, maize fields and rice paddies stretching from the banks of the meandering brown river right back to the mountain. And on the lower slopes, farmhouses clustering among bamboo groves and ancestral tombs.

Beijing fashions

But like many other nameless communities, White Horse Village had to be sacrificed.

In just four years, all of its emerald rice fields have disappeared under concrete. The houses the farmers built themselves, houses they were married in, that their children were born in, have all been demolished.

The valley floor is now laid out like a model city with neat apartment blocks, hotels, schools, and a grid of broad streets humming with government limousines, shiny new police cars and a musical dustbin lorry.

At first glance, the street corners could be any Chinese city. The girls are wearing exactly what they are wearing in Beijing this season - hot pants, black tights and tasselled ankle boots.

The shops are selling flooring, furniture, flat screen TVs, and real estate is booming.

Lack of community

From the beginning of this process, we have followed the local Communist Party secretary Xiang Caiguo, as he tried to persuade his community their lives would improve.

Now in his 50s, Mr Xiang has been the party secretary in White Horse Village for the best part of 20 years. It has been his job to act as a bridge between the villagers and the government.

"It's natural for us to feel sad. I've worked on these fields for decades. It's the same land my ancestors farmed for hundreds of years. But we have to keep in step with the authorities," he says of the change.

At 70, Mr Jin acknowledges there have been some advantages to change - notably a state pension and hot running water - but he feels isolated from the neighbours and routines which once gave meaning to his life:

"Now I have to climb up and down all these stairs and I have prostitutes and strangers for neighbours.

"And worst of all, there's nowhere for the family wedding parties and anniversaries - when I die, where are the family going to put my coffin when everyone needs to gather for the wake?"

He does not like to spend too much time in his modern apartment, preferring to spend his days in his old blue farmer's jacket and woolly hat selling cigarettes on the street corner and reminiscing about the old house.

Investment plans

The younger villagers are much more willing to embrace new city life, especially those who have been migrant workers and seen big city life on the coast.

Many have come home with capital and ideas, to open restaurants and hairdressing salons or to grab the opportunities created by the real estate boom.

Until this year, Zheng Jun and his wife worked in a factory in north-east China, but they have decided to try their luck in the new city and invested their savings in the latest appliances from Hong Kong - shower units with massage function, Jacuzzi hot tubs and self-cleaning toilets with heated seats.

"Everyone in this city is going to need a modern bathroom. In fact, most people are fitting two and tend to put a traditional squatting toilet in one and a Western style sitting toilet in the other," Mr Zheng explains.

If bathrooms are anything to go by, White Horse Village seems to be hurtling through centuries of development in the space of a few months.

Motorway network

Hua Zujun is deputy governor of the county and ultimately responsible for getting the city built. Spreading the blueprints on his large polished desk he outlines the main objectives:

"We had four objectives - a civilised, hygienic, scenic city, with the focus on eco-tourism. Our economy will also depend on mining, commercial farming and hydropower.

"We're situated in the very heart of China between three huge cities, Chongqing, Xian and Wuhan. And when our highway network is finished in 10 years time, we'll be only five hours from any of them," he explains.

China is building 5,000km of highway a year, and planning to match the US network by 2020. Every tunnel and bridge is part of the bigger plan to open up the interior and shift the country's centre of gravity west.

"We want to be one of the most liveable small cities in China," Mr Hua adds, "and we've got one third of the project finished already."

Fine talk, but the highway to Chongqing is three years behind schedule. All through the night the lights are on up on the mountain as the tunnel builders try to make up for time lost in arguments over land confiscation.

All along the people of White Horse Village have been assured this change was to their advantage and their interests would be protected.

But over the years, we have seen them grow more sceptical and more defiant. They have sacrificed homes, farmland and ancestral tombs, only to watch well-connected outsiders turn a profit when the land is reclassified as real estate.


Where once everyone was poor together, now there are winners and losers. It is a moment of great opportunity, but also one of mistrust.

Some villagers are even refusing to move into their allocated apartments as they suspect the developers have cut corners on construction materials and they do not trust official assurances on safety.

Even Mrs Xiang, the communist party secretary's wife, doubts whether the new apartment block would withstand an earthquake like the one that killed nearly 100, 000 in the region two years ago:

"The government doesn't take the people seriously. If the building collapses, who cares? We let them demolish our homes so they could build the new school. And we still haven't got anywhere decent to live," she says.

But everyone knows defiance is only temporary. Experience has taught them that the authorities win all the battles in the end. Here the past cannot be permitted to stand in the way of the future.

Watch the latest film from White Horse Village on Newsnight on Monday 29 November 2010 at 2230 BST on BBC Two or afterwards on the BBC iPlayer.