Xi Jinping's War On Poverty Moves Millions Of Chinese Off The Farm

Oct 19, 2017
Originally published on October 24, 2017 3:08 pm

The bare, plaster walls of Yu Zu'en's new government-issued apartment are adorned with three decorations: an old photo from his years as a soldier, a shelf for his harmonica, and a poster featuring the busts of every Chinese Communist Party secretary since Chairman Mao. He points to the newest one and smiles.

"I wouldn't be here without Xi Jinping," he says. "Under his wise leadership, we're now taken care of. Before, we barely survived. Our village was up in the mountains. Corn didn't grow well, no roads. Then the leaders mobilized us and the entire village moved here."

As a tribute, he reaches for his harmonica. The 84-year-old Korean War veteran belts out "The East Is Red," shutting his one good eye in concentration. He lost the other one in 1951, when American planes bombed his battalion's position in North Korea, nearly killing him.

After the war Yu returned home to China's poorest province — Guizhou, in the country's southwest, where a tenth of the population falls below China's poverty line. Since then he has managed to survive on a terraced plot of corn in a mountainous village whose name hinted at its inaccessibility: Above-the-Dragon.

But in May, the government declared Above-the-Dragon village impoverished. Nobody there was making more than $1.17 a day, China's official poverty line. So the government offered the residents new homes at Bright Field New Village, a housing project made up of dozens of white apartment blocks topped with red Spanish roof tiles on the outskirts of Guiyang, a metropolis of 4 million and the capital of Guizhou.

Just months ago, 45-year-old transplant Qin Huamei lived in a mud home, where she had to fetch water each morning from the village well. Now it flows whenever she turns on the tap inside her two-bedroom apartment.

"Life here is much better than my hometown, but now I need money to pay for my food," says Qin. "Before, we just ate what we grew."

But a disposable income will require a job, and the ones on offer here, like street cleaning, aren't enticing to Qin. She is holding out for something better, motioning to the new technological park being constructed across the street from the public housing complex.

China's government hopes city life will push tens of millions into the workforce on their way to joining the world's largest middle class. In the first five years of Xi's presidency, more than 60 million Chinese have risen above the poverty line; Xi wants to move 70 million more Chinese above that line within the next three years, a goal China's government is more tightly focused on than ever.

"I think they have fundamentally changed the way they are doing things, and there's just so much more money flowing through the system," says Sarah Rogers, a research fellow at the University of Melbourne.

Rogers, whose focus is poverty alleviation in China, says that under Xi, China's government has transformed how it tackles the issue. One big change has been evaluating local officials not just on GDP growth but on how well they alleviate poverty.

"You've got a particular target for poverty alleviation," says Rogers. "If you don't meet that, you're in a bit of trouble."

And officials in Guizhou are looking to avoid trouble — they plan to move more than 750,000 people off farms by the end of the year from nearly 3,600 villages.

Hours away from a decent road in the province and tucked into a narrow valley between steep mountains is the village of Changba, far to the east of Guiyang, where farmers thresh the autumn rice harvest in wooden boxes as the sun begins to set behind the mountains. Farmer Dang Xiaosi, 38, wipes sweat off his forehead and says he is ready to move.

"I've been wanting to leave for a while," he says, chuckling, adding that he is just waiting for authorities to get their ducks in a row and will move "when they tell me to."

Dang already is thinking about the housing project he will be moved to, city life, and the new expenses he'll have there. He asks me for a favor: "Tell the government not to charge us for electricity," he says. "You journalists can do that. They won't listen to us villagers."

I tell Dang there's less of a chance of its working if a foreign journalist makes a request like that. He nods his head. Once the government moves him to his new home, he reminds himself, he'll be on his own.

Yuhan Xu contributed research to this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

OK, to China now where the gap between rich and poor has never been greater. That fact will be on the minds of Communist Party officials in Beijing this week. They're gathered for a once-every-five-year meeting to pick new leaders. Alleviating poverty has been one of President Xi Jinping's priorities. And in the first five years of his presidency, more than 60 million Chinese have risen above the poverty line. NPR's Rob Schmitz introduces us to some of the people who've experienced that change.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: (Speaking Chinese).

YU ZU'EN: (Speaking Chinese).

SCHMITZ: The bare plaster walls of Yu Zu'en's new government-issued apartment are adorned with three decorations - an old photo from his years as a soldier, a shelf for his harmonica and a poster featuring the busts of every Chinese Communist Party secretary since Chairman Mao. He points to the newest one and smiles.

YU: (Through interpreter) I wouldn't be here without Xi Jinping. Under his wise leadership, we're now taken care of. Before, we barely survived. Our village was up in the mountains. Corn didn't grow well, no roads. Then the leaders mobilized us, and the entire village moved here.

SCHMITZ: As a tribute, he reaches for his harmonica.

YU: (Speaking Chinese).

SCHMITZ: The 84-year-old Korean War veteran belts out "The East Is Red."

(SOUNDBITE OF YU ZU'EN PERFORMANCE OF "THE EAST IS RED")

SCHMITZ: He shuts his one good eye in concentration. He lost the other won in 1951 when American fighter jets bombed his battalion's position in North Korea, nearly killing him. After the war, Yu returned home to China's poorest province, Guizhou. And since then, he's managed to survive on a terraced plot of corn in a mountainous village whose name hinted at its inaccessibility, Above-the-Dragon.

(SOUNDBITE OF YU ZU'EN PERFORMANCE OF "THE EAST IS RED")

SCHMITZ: But in May, the government declared Above-the-Dragon village impoverish. Nobody there was making more than $1.17 a day, China's official poverty line. So they offer them new homes at Bright Field New Village, a housing project made up of dozens of white apartment blocks topped with red Spanish roof tiles. It's on the outskirts of Guiyang, a metropolis of 4 million in the capital of Guizhou, where 1 in 10 people live below China's poverty line.

QIN HUAMEI: (Speaking Chinese).

SCHMITZ: Just months ago, 45-year-old transplant Qin Huamei lived in a mud home. She had to fetch water each morning from the village well. Now it flows whenever she turns on the tap inside her two-bedroom apartment.

QIN: (Through interpreter) Life here is much better than my hometown. But now I need money to pay for my food. Before, we just ate what we grew.

SCHMITZ: But a disposable income will require a job, and the ones on offer here, like street cleaning, aren't enticing to Qin. But China's government hopes city life will push tens of millions into the workforce on their way to the world's largest middle class. President Xi Jinping wants to move 70 million more Chinese over the poverty line within the next three years, a goal China's government is more tightly focused on than ever.

SARAH ROGERS: I think they have fundamentally changed the way they're doing things. And there's just so much more money flowing through the system.

SCHMITZ: Sarah Rogers, a research fellow at the University of Melbourne, has focused her work on China's poverty alleviation. She says that under President Xi Jinping, China's government has transformed how it tackles poverty. One big change has been evaluating local officials not just on GDP growth but on how well they alleviate poverty.

ROGERS: You've got a particular target for poverty alleviation, and if you don't make that, you're in a bit of trouble.

SCHMITZ: And officials here in Guizhou are looking to avoid trouble. They plan to move nearly a million people off the farm by the end of the year from nearly 3,600 villages...

(SOUNDBITE OF RICE THRESHING)

SCHMITZ: ...Villages like Changba, where farmers thresh the autumn rice harvest in wooden boxes as the sun begins to set behind steep mountains. Thirty-eight-year-old farmer Dang Xiaosi wipes his forehead and says he's ready to move.

DANG XIAOSI: (Through interpreter) I've been wanting to leave for a while. I'm just waiting for them to get their ducks in a row, and I'll move when they tell me to.

SCHMITZ: Dang is already thinking about the housing project he'll be moved to, city life and the new expenses he'll have there.

DANG: (Speaking Chinese).

SCHMITZ: He asks me for a favor. "Tell the government not to charge us for electricity," he says. "You journalists can do that." I tell Dang there's less of a chance of it working if a foreign journalist makes a request like that. Dang nods his head. Once the government moves him to his new home, he reminds himself, he'll be on his own. Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Guizhou. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.