Govt reacts after cliff village kids’ struggle to school shocks nation

By Shan Jie Source:Global Times Published: 2016-5-27 0:28:02

Children climb ladders made of tree branches up 800-meter cliff

School children climb vines on a cliff to reach their homes on top of a 800-meter-high cliff in Liangshan, Sichuan Province on May 14. The images have caught national attention over poverty in southwestern China. Photo: CFP

A public outcry over photos of young school children clambering up a sheer 800-meter cliff face on rickety wooden ladders, the only way they can get from their village homes to school, has prompted swift action from local authorities.

Atuleer, home to people from the Yi ethnic group in the southwest of Sichuan Province, has no road connection and the residents depend on subsistence farming of potatoes, walnuts and chili peppers. 

While many urban residents have expressed shock and disbelief that there are still people struggling for a basic living and education in the world's second-largest economy, experts said that there is still a long way to go to lift those left behind by China's modernization out of poverty.

A work team of 50 from Zhaojue county's transport, education and environment departments arrived in Atuleer Wednesday to look into the situation after photos of the children's struggle caught the nation's attention in the past two days, The Beijing News reported on Thursday.

Lin Shucheng, Party secretary of Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture, said that authorities would build a set of steel stairs as a temporary solution to ensure the security of the village residents, while more permanent solutions were sought, the report said.

Home to 72 families, the only way residents can reach the outside world is to risk the climb down a series of 17 ladders made from tree branches and vines precariously fixed to the cliff, The Beijing News reported Tuesday. 

The village children, aged from 6 to 15, board at their school and are only able to return home twice a month, when their parents take turns escorting them up and down the mountain.

Yu Shaoxiang, an expert on social security and poverty relief legislation at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences told the Global Times on Thursday that the news went viral because it shows the sharp contrast between the relatively comfortable lives of China's urban majority, and the harsh life in villages like these.

"It warned the public that even though some people have a good life, China is still in the initial stages of socialism and so development is uneven," said Hu Xingdou, a professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology and expert on China's social problems.

Living in isolation

It would cost some 40 million yuan ($6.1 million) to build a road to Atuleer, but the Zhaojue county government only receives 4 million yuan of poverty-relief assistance from the State each year, China Central Television reported. And while attention has been fixed on one village, there are another 33 in the county that also have no road access.

"Lack of infrastructure seriously limits village development. Even when there's a decent harvest, residents have to transport agricultural products to the market themselves," Zhaojue county office secretary Jike Jinsong told The Beijing News.

Some local governments have put little effort into poverty relief, because the return is not obvious, so they were not very motivated, Yu said.

"Meanwhile, legislation on poverty relief is still lacking, even though the central government has been calling for it since 2011, which means the poverty alleviation office could not work with the legislative authority, and some of its functions were not clear," Yu said.

Hu said that there should be targeted poverty relief to individuals, rather than giving money to local authorities, while a public and legal system to supervise the work should be put in place.

Future development

Tourism could be a way to develop the village, which the local Yi could participate in, along with more modern agricultural practices, Yang Yong, an independent geologist and advanced engineer in environmental geology, who was invited to assess the environmental conditions of Atuleer, told The Beijing News.

However, Yu believes that the village should be relocated entirely, as this is the only solution for the permanent relief of poverty.

"The first job is to convince villagers to leave the place in which they grew up and live, which will be difficult," Jike Jinsong said, adding that the relocation means villagers would lose their own land and source of income.

"However, if they move to a nearby town, they can only find work as laborers," he noted.

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