China's millions still beset by poverty

THE BALTIMORE SUN

LAOJIE, China -- Far away from China's boom towns and beautiful people is Hu Bangjing, an intense 12-year-old who lives alone in a small hut with two pigs.

Her goal is to be an elementary school teacher. Anything to get out of the mud and subsistence farming that has been her family's lot for generations and that 16 years of capitalist-style economic reforms have done little to improve.

In this remote part of China's rugged southwest, poverty is not relative, it's absolute. Many people wonder how they will feed themselves, and up to 30 percent of children do not attend

school, some because their families can't afford to clothe them.

Here, where ethnic Han Chinese are often outnumbered by Buyi, Shui and Miao minority groups, the average farmer earns just over $70 a year, and about 10 million people of Guizhou province's 33 million are officially classified as poor, meaning they earn less than $25 a year.

This is a part of China too often overlooked by enamored #F outsiders -- and even by its own government. While many envision a China pulled into the future by its prosperous big cities and coastal regions, the hundreds of millions living inland may have a greater effect than the wealthy few.

Indeed, the inland's widening gap with the prosperous coast has begun to worry China's rulers. With at least 80 million Chinese unable to feed or clothe themselves and many more able only to dream of the prosperity that they see on television, the potential for instability is huge.

In fact, this part of the country has seen a rise in banditry and minor revolts by peasants disgruntled by taxes and petty officials. Government officials now concede that poverty could threaten China's modernization and lead to upheaval.

In response, authorities have launched an program to end absolute poverty by the end of the decade.

"Economic development in the central western regions is lagging behind other places, and the gap between those regions and China's eastern region is becoming wider and wider," said State Councilor Chen Junsheng at a symposium on poverty in Beijing. "This demands urgent action."

At first glance, Laojie seems an unlikely place to foment unrest. It lies in a small, overpopulated valley southeast of Guizhou province's capital city of Guiyang.

Officially closed to outsiders, Laojie is really no more than a few ramshackle thatched-roof homes gathered in a muddy corner of a rice field.

Living in one of these small houses is Hu Bangjing, a short pre-teen with two pigtails and a winning smile. Her father died of kidney failure shortly after she was born, leaving her mother with three children, no money and a field to plow.

"When I couldn't do the work in the fields, I could only cry. I wanted a strong man, someone to do the work," said Hu Bangjing's mother, Zhou Yuhua.

Two years ago, Mrs. Zhou, 41, remarried and moved to a nearby village. the decision was tough because Mr. Zhou's family would not accept her daughter. Her two other children had grown and moved away.

Part of it was due to tradition -- girls are seen as a burden -- and

part of it practical: By leaving her daughter in Laojie, Mrs. Zhou kept a claim to her former husband's land.

That left Hu Bangjing to raise the pigs -- and herself. Her mother visits her about once a week. Her school gives her a bright blue and white sweat suit to wear as a uniform, but she has few amenities in her small hut. Mild malnourishment has taken the sparkle out of her eyes and left her undersized.

Yet she drives herself and is encouraged by her mother to attend nine hours of school each day and do two to three hours of homework, as well as several hours of chores.

"If my daughter doesn't become a teacher, I'll be very disappointed," Mrs. Zhou said. "I want a better life for her. It's no good here."

Many others aren't bothering to stick around. About 300,000 people -- 10 times the number of industrial workers remaining in the prefecture of 3.4 million -- have moved to other parts of China, according to a local official.

This flood of the economically disadvantaged is what concerns Beijing.

When China's overheated economy eventually cools, they will stop sending back money to their impoverished relatives and return to swell the unemployment lines there. Already they form part of the country's "floating population" of 50 million who roam the countryside looking for work.

For those like Hu Bangjing who are determined to stay, being a teacher and joining the army are the best paths to a stable future. When the local government has enough money to pay them, teachers can earn up to $35 a month, the same amount that a poor farmer earns in a year, and free lodging at the local school.

Farmers have fewer options. The past 1 1/2 decades of economic reforms have given them their own land to till, but this policy has been of little help to those in poor areas with rocky soil, bad roads and no nearby cities to provide a market for surplus grain.

"Some have succeeded very well, some have held their own, and others can't get ahead for whatever reasons -- illness in the family, lack of ability or bad land -- and China doesn't have the mechanisms to cope with this," said Carl Riskin, who studies poverty in China at Columbia University in New York.

The new push to alleviate poverty will see new infrastructure projects completed and low-interest loans made available to farmers.

Yet the amount is small compared with the official figure of 80 million, a number equal to the population of unified Germany. About $1.3 billion will be invested nationwide over the next seven years, even less than the previous anti-poverty drive, when China earmarked $3.5 billion for poverty alleviation, according to government figures.

For Mrs. Zhou, recent changes have been a mixed blessing. Higher prices for fertilizer and lower prices for grain have pinched her pocketbook, but she is now allowed to travel freely to seek higher prices.

About once a week she lugs several sacks of rice onto a bus and travels to Jichang, a market town, in hopes of finding higher prices.

Success on these trips matters because -- another result of China's ambiguous policy toward the poor -- her daughter's school costs $10.50 a year. Her daughter is first in the class and thus qualifies for a scholarship, but Mrs. Zhou plans for the day when her daughter fails a test or when she graduates to middle school and faces higher school fees.

"We don't plan on her being No. 2. She's always No. 1. That's the only way we can afford it, but somehow I'd support her, even if she weren't No. 1," Mrs. Zhou said. "My goal is for her to get her out of here."

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