Chewing on the hard bones of China's poverty

Source:Xinhua Published: 2016-3-1 13:40:08

For He Lati, poverty is like a thorn in his flesh. Surrounded by mountains and rivers, He's family live in Bai Caoping village, one of the poorest areas in China's southwestern Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture. He swore he would leave this poverty, but poor transport means the farthest he has ever travelled is to the prefecture seat of Xichang.

His name translates as "head wolf" , and it's a constant reminder of his great responsibility as family bread winner. "I dare not rest, let alone get ill," says He, 40.

Every rainy season from June to September, He rides his motorcycle to remote mountains to pick matsutake, a mushroom prized for its flavor and medicinal value. Selling matsutake accounts for a fifth of the family' s annual income. He' s wife takes care of their three children, leaving her no time to farm. The corn and potato crop cannot satisfy hunger, so He works on construction sites to make ends meet.

In good years, the annual disposable income per capita for He' s family is less than 2,000 yuan. According to China' s per capita net income standard, the family lived below the poverty line set in 2010 of an annual income of 2,300 yuan (376 US dollars).

He' s family is one of 29.48 million poor rural families in China. The first developing country to meet the UN Millennium Development Goals target of reducing the population living in poverty by half ahead of the 2015 deadline, China has lifted more than 600 million people out of poverty in the past 30 years. Now it faces a new challenge: how to raise the remaining poor in under five years?

China would work hard to lift the 70 million people out of poverty by the end of 2020, President Xi Jinping said at the Global Poverty Reduction and Development Forum in Beijing in October last year. This goal has been proposed as part of the 13th Five-year Plan (2016-2020), which will be discussed and very likely approved by the National People's Congress, China's top legislature, in March.

Experts say that apart from drawing detailed roadmaps of poverty eradication for every local government, the more urgent task for government is to explore a more sustainable road, targeting poverty alleviation measures.

In 2015, many local governments included poverty alleviation and development in the evaluation system of cadres.

"This gives us a huge pressure. After years of poverty alleviation, the better-off places have been lifted out of abyss; what' s left are 'the hard bones'," says Long Changchun, an NPC delegate from Guizhou Province, where many areas are afflicted by poverty. "The further we get into the poor rural areas, the harder the task."

He Lati hates his family being described as one of the "bones" . However, his 11-year-old son suffers ankylosing spondylitis - a chronic disease with no permanent cure. Medical costs of 40,000 yuan have left the family in debt and every new loan visibly ages him.

The "absolute poor" covered by China' s social security system have a safety net, but while people like He' s family can make a living, illness or natural disasters can throw them back into impoverishment.

"We're no longer talking about the simple numbers of getting people out of poverty," says Professor Sun Zhaoxia, of Guizhou Minzu University, who specializes in poverty issues. "We must tap the potential of individuals and help them acquire the capabilities to fight poverty. These measures must be sustainable."

In 2013, China began to record the poor population and build a poverty information network that could target families like He Lati' s.

According to the poverty record of He's village, his family is one of 94 poor households.

At He's request, the local poverty-alleviation bureau sent him to learn building skills like bricklaying. When he came back, he built a wooden cabin with a toilet and bathroom with 20,000 yuan of his own and another 20,000-yuan subsidy.

Before this, the family lived in a low damp cabin made of clay tiles and shared the narrow space with livestock. The new cabin is 2.5 meters high, so He can now stand upright in his own home.

When the new cabin was completed, 400 walnut trees planted 10 years earlier were ready for harvest. The 10,000 yuan from selling walnuts and the money earned from construction work and picking mushrooms lifted He' s family over the poverty line.

With the development of the economy, the poor population has followed work opportunities around the country, causing the "fragmentation" of poverty, says Li Xiaoyun, a member of the State Council Leading Group Office on Poverty Alleviation and Development. If no target measures are taken, poverty eradication is hard to realize.

Xichang, 254 kilometers from Bai Caoping village, is home to China' s satellite launch base and space exploration programs. Housing prices have soared to an average 10,000 yuan per square meter.

Liangshan Prefecture is home to 400,000 poor people living in 2,072 villages. The poorest people there earn barely 10 US cents a day.

Such gaps between the rich and the poor and unbalanced regional development are new problems that China and the world must tackle, says Li Xiaoyun.

Sun Zhaoxia says the coming National People' s Congress and Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference meetings will unite efforts and resources across the country to address the issues of the poverty standard, alleviation policies, employment and social security. Delegates and members will focus on the roots of poverty, like industry, transport, finance and education.

In order to stop the intergenerational transmission of poverty, Liangshan has adopted an education model of nine years of compulsory education and three years of free vocational education. He Lati' s elder son went to a vocational school and found a job in an electronic enterprise in Guangdong Province.

Unfortunately, the younger son had a recurrence of his illness, which cost the family 50,000 yuan. The elder son sent 10,000 yuan. Though back in poverty, He is optimistic.

"Putting my son through school and planting walnut trees were the best decisions of my life. Now my life is not ruined with a sick child," He says.

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