Chinese anti-poverty efforts fall short in aid to remote rural areas

May 17, 1991|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau of The Sun

LUQUAN COUNTY, China -- The four small villages tucked atop 6,900-foot-high Dongjia Mountain are without electricity. Drinking water must be lugged by hand from a spring down the steep mountainside. Cooking and heating are by open fires within the blackened interiors of the villagers' baked-mud huts.

Children here are constantly afflicted with diarrhea and eye infections. Their black hair tends to show an odd tinge of red from nutritional deficiencies. For large parts of the year, the daily diet in these villages consists of two meals a day, each meal only three small bowls of cornmeal, wheat or potatoes.

"Here we rely on the heavens to eat," said Zhang Sheng Rong, leader of one of the four settlements, Dragon Pool Mountain Village. "If the weather's good, we are only short of grain for two months a year. If the weather's bad, we are short six months a year."

Added Wang Xue Liang, the only teacher at the villages' one-room, three-grade school: "No one ever gets fat here."

Isolated and impoverished, this mountaintop in southwestern Yunnan Province is the type of place that China does not readily show off to foreigners. This is the part of the countryside that has been largely untouched by the remarkable economic boom that drastically transformed much of China in the 1980s.

In the last decade in China, a historic shift away from collectives to household-based production set free farmers' capabilities, resulting in a tripling of their per-capita income to more than $115 a year. Newly built houses, ubiquitous TVs and soaring bank deposits are only the most obvious signs of the rapid rise in rural living standards.

China's leaders recently proclaimed that they have essentially solved the problem of adequately feeding and clothing their more than 1.1 billion people and that the nation now can move on to its goal for the next decade, "popularizing a relatively comfortable life."

But China still has an estimated 50 million to 70 million people living below its poverty line, established at an annual per-capita income of about $38 and 100 pounds of grain.

Like Dongjia Mountain's Miao villagers, China's most impoverished people tend to come from among the nation's more than 50 ethnic minority groups.

China's least well-off also tend to live in remote, arid areas in the northwestern and southwestern regions. Heavily mountainous and ethnic Yunnan Province -- bordering Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam -- is among the very poorest of areas.

China, indisputably, has made great progress in attacking poverty, even though it was not until 1986 that Beijing formally acknowledged poverty as a problem and came up with a national poverty line. At that time, 120 million Chinese were said to fall below the standard, about twice as many people as today.

The relative poverty that remains is far from the type of misery so evident in Africa and in many other parts of Asia. In neighboring India, almost 30 percent of the people fall below that nation's official poverty line of $11 a month.

But there is a growing recognition among both Chinese and Western development experts that -- as China's rapid development continues, particularly in its coastal areas -- a wider and wider chasm is opening between those able to benefit from those changes and those poorly positioned to take advantage of them.

As a result, the income gap between urban and rural residents is growing larger, as is the gap between richer farmers and those in unfavorable areas such as Yunnan's Luquan County.

Some international aid experts believe that Chinese anti-poverty efforts have failed to counteract this trend because the programs tend to take a top-down, centrally planned approach stressing the trickle-down benefits from increased production rather than addressing structural problems such as remote villagers' inability to participate in the country's free markets.

As one of China's poorest counties, Luquan County, for instance, has received special funds. But this money has mainly gone toward setting up small-scale industries in low-lying areas, industries that employ relatively few workers from the minorities in the mountains and that mainly benefit the cash-strapped county government.

Anti-poverty workers typically do not visit isolated pockets of poverty like the villages atop Dongjia Mountain and anti-poverty loans usually are not extended to people like the Miao, who often are perceived as unable to repay the money.

"China's anti-poverty loans are essentially loans to the rich," said Irene Bain, assistant director of a CARE International project that has attempted to pioneer a different, more grass-roots approach to attacking poverty here.

Under the private-aid organization's project the last 18 months, agricultural extension workers carried a small generator, a TV and a videotape player up Dongjia Mountain to use in teaching the villagers scientific techniques for raising black-boned chickens, a fast-growing bird whose meat is much prized in Yunnan for its medicinal qualities.

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