Zhao Hanwen lives in Xinglong county, Hebei Province, about 150 kilometers away from Tiananmen Square. Although the distance is not that great geographically, Zhao and his wife inhabit a world that is vastly different from the capital.
Zhao and his fellow villagers are the last group of people near Beijing who still make a living farming. They drink water from wells and live in conditions that most Beijing residents would find unbearable. It takes them five hours to drive just 50 kilometers due to the poor road conditions in the mountains, according to a report in the 21st Century Business Herald.
A line in the sand
Xinglong county is close to the Pinggu District of Beijing, and both regions are famous for fruit production. However, since Pinggu was defined as being under Beijing's administration, the situation for the two areas, which used to be economically similar, couldn't be more different, the newspaper report noted.
Xinglong county is defined as one of 25 impoverished counties in Hebei Province. These areas encircle the glamorous capital city like a ribbon, in which more than 2.35 million people suffer from poverty, according to a survey conducted by the Hebei Development and Reform Commission and the Hebei Provincial Poverty Alleviation and Development Office in September 2011.
Li Lan, the leader of a group researching impoverished regions surrounding Beijing and Tianjin under the Hebei Development and Reform Commission, told the Global Times that he once went to an area called Chicheng county and locals joked that the only industry in the county was the blacksmith, and the service industry consisted of just the local convenience stores.
"I once met a family and both the 50-year-old big brother and the 40-year-old younger one were too poor to be able to get married," Li said.
Zhao told the 21st Century Business Herald that the family's annual income was only 5,000 yuan ($791), which was used to support the whole family.
"There used to be more than 100 villagers in the mountains but as the situation has been getting worse and worse, more than half of the villagers have moved out with only 30 people left including the local 48-year-old village head, Wang Liguo, who is unmarried," Zhao said.
The rich and the poor
As Beijing is booming economically, with annual GDP per capita reaching $12,000 in 2011, the line differentiating the administrative regions has begun to define rich zones from poor.
"If we were living in Yanqing county, we would already be rich," a villager in Diao'e county (which is separated from Yanqing by just a mountain) exclaimed, expressing envy toward his richer neighbors when he was interviewed by China Newsweek.
In 2011, the annual financial income of Chicheng county was 970 million yuan while Yanqing's income was 1.8 billion yuan, official statistics revealed.
Policy differences between the various administrative areas can also be significant.
For example, the road construction subsidy is 35,000 yuan per kilometer in Hebei Province, while in Beijing it is 10 times more.
Cities like Zhangjiakou and Chengde have sacrificed their own large-scale projects to make Beijing environmentally secure, according to Li Lan.
"Chicheng county axed 70 projects that might have endangered the water safety of Beijing, leading to thousands of people being laid off," he said, adding that the poverty in these areas means they are barely able to support themselves, but they have to sacrifice so Beijing can have healthy surroundings.
As one of the important drinking water sources for Beijing, Chicheng itself thirsts for water with 61,000 people, as well as livestock, experiencing difficulties accessing drinking water. Around 26,000 people needed to travel to seek water in 2010, according to official statistics.
Li said those poverty-stricken areas provided resources to Beijing for free for years, and even with some compensation given in recent years, the amount of money provided isn't in line with market-oriented calculations.
Yang Yiyong, director of the Institute for Social Development under the National Development and Reform Commission, told the Global Times that the wealth gap has existed for quite a long time and it is not limited to Beijing, with areas surrounding mega cities such as Shanghai and Guangzhou also facing the same problem.
"Those counties in poverty are mostly areas which are geographically hard to develop; most of them are mountainous areas with less developed transportation networks. Also, the people living in these areas are not skilled enough to meet the needs of the market," Yang said.
The Hebei provincial government in 1986 designed "circle" strategy, which was intended to boost the economy in areas around Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei. In 2010, Hebei outlined a plan to construct a green economic circle surrounding Beijing in its 12th Five-Year Plan.
The plan detailed goals such as enlarging vegetable plantations to occupy over 50 percent of the vegetable market in Beijing and Tianjin.
Yang said increasing cooperation between Hebei and Beijing might be a way forward, but the two partners must seek a long term common interest to ensure cooperation proceeds smoothly.
Some experts have put forward suggestions to merge administrative functions with Beijing, but Han Jin, a professor studying poverty-stricken regions around Beijing at the Shijiazhuang University of Economics, told the Global Times that merging the areas is not an easy proposition, one reason being that it can be difficult to integrate local politicians into the wider framework after the areas are merged.
"Developing the areas equally requires strategic planning. Beijing needs to shoulder the responsibility of forming plans to reduce poverty, since it has strongly demanded space to develop from Hebei Province. And Hebei should gradually reduce its dependence on Beijing and earn equal cooperation status with the capital," Han said.