Chenggong University City is situated in Chenggong district, Luoyang town (chenggong qu luoyang zhen – 呈贡区洛羊镇), 24 kilometres from the city proper. It covers an area of 43 square kilometres, almost half the size of Kunming in 2007, which gives an idea of the significance of the project. The plan was approved in 2003 as part of the development of the new East of Kunming city. Ideally, it will attract not only students from Yunnan province, as well as other provinces in China, but also students from abroad, notably from South Asia. Once the project is finished, the new University City will have the capacity to host more than 150 thousand students. The total investment for the project is estimated at 10 billion RMB (1.6 billion USD). Construction work lasted six years, from 2004 to 2010. Seven universities have already moved to the new campus town.
University towns have been proliferating all over the country since the turn of the new century. They are part of a central government plan, launched in 2000, which calls for 50 new university towns to be built in city suburbs. The reasons for this initiative may seem obvious: along with the dramatic increase in the number of students pursuing higher studies, land prices within city centres have soared. This makes it difficult for universities to expand their facilities and capacities. At the same time, selling off old campuses brings sizable capital gains that allow for the acquisition of large terrains in the outskirts of urbanizing cities. (Sometimes it is the government who expropriates the old campus, and the academic institution gets land in the new campus town as a part of the compensation). There is intense competition between universities to attract students, and the curricula have expanded dramatically. Almost every university now offers a degree in business management (including the lucrative MBA). Consequently, capacity has become paramount.
Some of the universities that have moved into new campus cities, such as Yunnan University, are included in Project 211 (the name stands for 21st century, top 100 universities). The aim of the project is to promote the development and reputation of the Chinese higher education system. Both national and local governments are involved, allocating large amounts of funding to different purposes, such as updating installations. There is also the more selective Project 985, which originally included only nine universities (the so-called C9 League), but was enlarged later to thirty-nine, none of them in Yunnan province.
In order to finance its ambitious new campus, Yunnan University has also sold most of the old campuses that were located in downtown Kunming. The only campus that remains is protected as a heritage site. The university was founded in 1923, and was the oldest in West China. It sits in an unmatched location facing Green Lake Park (cuihu gongyuan – 翠湖公园), and is surrounded by venerable ginkgo trees and teeming flora.
The new University City has been built on arable land, something that some locals frown upon since, allegedly, the project was to include the use of a large area of wasteland. Considering the size of the area that is now occupied by the new campuses, it is easy to imagine the enormous expropriation procedures that have been carried out. (Before the University City was built, the area was occupied by five villages). The central government enhanced the plan to build university towns with a number of favourable policies that would help to overcome hurdles such as expropriation procedures or financing. Expropriated farmers remain the biggest issue to be dealt with. Once farmers are dispossessed of their land, they lose their livelihood. The compensation may allow them to buy a new house, but it won’t provide them with a new job. The lack of higher education is a major impediment. A number of training programs are usually implemented to facilitate job reinsertion for farmers (as guardians or gardeners in many cases). According to a survey carried out in 2011, ) young farmers were optimistic about the construction of the campus city and were willing to join training programs. However, the older ones found it difficult to join these programs and expressed concern about their future. The provision of old age protection schemes would solve this problem, but only partly. When farmers no longer have their land, the dignity of having an occupation is difficult to make up for.
The local government has financed the new University City’s urbanisation work. A number of buses and a new subway line connect the new university town with Kunming. A large area of the expropriated land will eventually be used to build commercial and residential spaces. Currently, a number of local vendors, perhaps former farmers, have set up informal stalls to cater to the University City’s new residents. This is a significant niche market, as the area still lacks many services to satisfy the needs of its new inhabitants. (The above-mentioned study proposes the implementation of soft financing policies for former farmers willing to become entrepreneurs.) The name of the new town very precisely describes who these new residents are, at least for the moment: university students. Streets are almost empty, which is a common feature in many new cities that are urbanised before the need arises. As one Chinese scholar pointed out, “there is more urbanised land than people in China.” In the case of the new university towns, students seem to have been sent out like advanced parties to settle new territory, even before a number of basic services have been provided for. Perhaps this is the best way: after all, with classes to attend and individual studying to do, students hardly have time to venture outside the campus in any case.
Spanish qualified lawyer; PhD in Chinese Law. UrbaChina Research Officer. Has lived in China since 2006.