House of Cards

Spring Festival with the losers of China’s development – by Frank Muruca


“I apologize. My uncle lives in a shanty house.”

On the second day of the Chinese New Year, in the town of Jintan, Jiangsu Province, a teacher colleague named Wei invited me to spend the day with him. All morning, we had been driving around town on a kind of sober bar crawl – dropping into relatives’ homes for not more than 15 minutes, eating dates and nuts, and bestowing hongbao to the children. By lunchtime, my coat pockets were filled with lone cigarettes and candy. At one stop, an aunt had put a halfdozen cherries into my pocket “for the road”.

“After lunch, we like to play cards,” Wei told me. “Well, really it’s to gamble. We will go to my uncle’s house. It’s his turn to host the family. Next week, it will be my turn.” He paused and added, “I apologize. My uncle lives in a shanty house.”

The brilliant morning sky had turned into an overcast afternoon. We were in the suburbs by now, and met up with the rest of Wei’s family. While most suburban communitiess feel transient – a gradual movement from city to countryside – this transition was far more abrupt. Newly constructed four-story apartments had been dropped directly across from brick village houses. To the north is a brand new mall; to the south is farmland. Very recently this used to be a standalone village. Then the city arrived and was in the process of eating whatever was left of a rural lifestyle.

“My uncle and his neighbors used to farm right over there.” Wei pointed to a block of apartments. “But they had to move because a new factory will be built." 

Wei’s uncle, Xiao Shou, had been relocated to an abandoned three-story house only a couple hundred yards from his old home. The house used to be a hotel, but now it looked completely derelict.

In the front yard, broken windows were swept into twelve foot piles on either side of the path to the front door. The site served as a kind of graveyard for the waste of the community’s housing boom. On the first floor were rusted out bikes, dilapidated furniture and a random assortment of trash and debris. A pair of dusty high heels sat on top of a book shelf. It was easy to tell what had been abandoned and what had been brought along by the three families that were relocated here. Thanks to the broken windows and unhinged doors, there was no physical feeling of being “inside”.

“How long have they lived here?” I asked.

“About two years.”

Xiao Shou and his wife lived on the second floor. The whole family organized themselves around two tables in what was once Room 230. The water was boiled for tea and the men sat down to gamble at cards. Their wives flanked behind them to comment on strategy, but their suggestions were mostly ignored. Wei was playing with a brother-in-law, his father and Xiao Shou. Earlier, while walking in, Wei had told me his brother-in-law was a businessman and pointed to the black Mercedes parked outside.

As the game developed hands were thrown down with a satisfying smack, but for the most part everyone sat in silence, chewing on sunflower seeds and sipping tea out of plastic water cups. The atmosphere was focused, shedding the lethargy of lunch, as we waited to see who would triumph.


In China, farmers do not own the land they cultivate. They can only lease and sublease, with a typical lease lasting seventy years. The land itself is owned by the village collective. In the 1990s local governments, looking for easy ways of attracting capital and raising tax revenue, started to buy up cheap rural land then raise the price when selling it onto businesses. Things are much different for the country’s urban residents, who can buy and sell property, giving them easier access to capital. Economist Arthur Kroeber, in his book China’s Economy: What Everyone Needs to Know, explains the extent of this wealth transfer:

“Since China has no capital gains tax, all the profits from the sale of a house go straight into [the seller’s] pocket. A farmer can own the rights to only one piece of land for personal cultivation; an urban resident can buy as many houses as he can afford, generating rental income or using the property as security for a mortgage to finance a small business.”

According to a World Bank report from 2014, local governments have purchased a total amount of farmland at two trillion yuan less than its market value. “If farmers had received the full market value for their land and enjoyed normal investment returns,” Kroeber wrote, “they would now have an additional five trillion yuan ($800 billion US, or 8 percent of GDP) in household wealth.”

This two-tiered property rights systems is part of the reason why two men playing the same game of cards can occupy such different spaces of China’s changing economic landscape. One has a Mercedes; another lives in an abandoned hotel.

Wei read my face after he told me how long his uncle had lived here.“Yes,” he added, “but what can we do?” He said it without a hint of animosity towards the greater economic and governmental forces at work in this neighborhood.

By the end of the afternoon, after the cigarettes had burned out and the floor was littered with nutshells, Xiao Shou sat contently with a large stack of bills on the table in front of him.

“He wins every year,” Wei said. 

Frank Muraca studies Mandarin and Chinese urban issues in Jiangsu. He's originally from Virginia

Photos courtesy of the writer