Rural China struggles in poverty Desperate: The official goal of eradicating poverty by 2000 seems unlikely in the rural areas cut off from prosperity, and the government is part of the problem.


DAIHUA, China -- The drive from wealth to poverty is short but beautiful.

South of the booming provincial capital of Guiyang is a landscape of sheer cliffs, gorges, limestone caverns and sinkholes. Pyramid-shaped mountains crowd tiny farms; farmers harvest slate and stunted crops.

Southern China's Guizhou province was never cut out for prosperity. It is a mountainous plateau, for hundreds of years the last refuge of tribes defeated by Chinese armies and the poorest of China's poor who were otherwise without land.

It will also be a difficult test for China's announced program of eradicating poverty within four years. For the government itself is partly responsible for the conditions here. Decades of misguided economic policies ignored China's rural poor, while recent economic reforms have cut money for education and health.

The result is that people like Zhang Jingzhen have little chance of escaping poverty by the target year of 2000. The 50-year-old farmer lives in a village where education is so costly that few can afford it and where the only growth comes in the size of the government bureaucracy.

"The harvest never lasts through the year," says Zhang, sitting on a tiny stool next to a barrel of corn. "It lasts us through the winter but in the spring we run out. Then it gets difficult."

Helping the 100 million Chinese in absolute poverty like Zhang has become a priority for China's leaders. As they replace a strategy of no-holds-barred economic growth with cautious communist virtues of social equality and discipline, their ability to feed and clothe the destitute has become a key test of legitimacy.

Leaders focus on the poor

While leaders used to show their priorities by visiting the boom towns strung along China's southern coast, they are now as likely to visit impoverished areas like southern Guizhou or the country's barren northwest. They deliver blankets and bags of rice and promise before television cameras that the central government will end the locals' misery.

International experts applaud China's commitment to end poverty. They note that over the past 15 years 100 million have been lifted out of absolute poverty and that China remains one of the few countries where leaders focus national attention on the nation's poorest.

But they also point out that China's successes are not all they seem.

China sets the poverty line so low that even people who officially escape poverty remain desperately poor.

China claims to have 65 million living in poverty, defined as an income of 60 cents per day per person. The true number, however, is thought to be closer to 100 million because China's statistics exclude poor people living outside officially designated poor areas.

And at the more realistic international standard of $1 a day, the number of poor in China zooms up to 350 million, or a quarter of the population. This would give China the same percentage of poor as India.

Early on in China's economic reforms, rural China benefited from a boom; it was when most poor farmers escaped poverty, as communes were disbanded and prices freed.

Since the mid-1980s, however, reforms have benefited the cities far more than the countryside. Huge areas of the country are cut off from this prosperity, meaning China cannot count on even a booming national economy to help farmers like Zhang.

China's anti-poverty programs, meanwhile, have relatively little money -- $1.5 billion a year -- and ignore fundamentals in favor of spectacular centrally planned projects. One of the favored programs, for example, is the resettlement of hundreds of thousands of mountain dwellers in northwestern Ningxia province. But small-scale loans to farmers -- one of the most effective means of raising incomes -- are just beginning to catch on, and only at the prodding of the World Bank and United Nations.

"It's hard to connect trends in poverty reduction with the plans. I don't think it's affected the overall incidence of poverty. It's much more broader economic trends" that help, says Carl Riskin of Columbia University, a leading researcher on poverty in China.

Southern Guizhou demonstrates that a major cause of poverty is the government itself.

"Reforms" have reduced the contributions from the central government, but the number of local bureaucrats seems to increase every year. The result: Many counties in Guizhou are unable to meet their payrolls, let alone undertake projects to ease the region's poverty.

Schooling costs staggering

Local governments have responded to the central government cuts by raising user fees, such as tuition. Schooling, which was free under the old system, now costs parents $15 per child per semester -- a staggering amount in a region where the per capita income is $40 a year.

For Zhang, the result has been bankruptcy. The costs of putting two sons through high school has left him living in squalor and in debt for an amount equivalent to a full year's income.

His wooden shack with dirt floors is overrun by mice, who hop in and out of barrels of corn. Windows are an unaffordable luxury, as is running water or a television.

The cause of his poverty is literally written on the walls. His children are diligent students but for lack of paper they have scrawled Chinese and English words over the wooden boards, leaving his walls looking like a work of modern art.

"The children wanted to learn," Zhang says. "But we had to go into debt to pay for it."

Many children are not so lucky. A teacher in Daihua reports that the number of students is dropping dramatically. Girls are especially hurt as parents choose to spend their limited money on education of sons. Daihua, which once boasted a high school, closed it for lack of money and students.

"The people here don't even get enough to eat," the teacher said. "How can they be expected to go to school?"

Waiving tuition is out of the question because the government in Daihua has to spend all its money -- and then some -- on salaries.

Expensive bureaucracy

According to government statistics, Daihua spent the equivalent of $46,000 on bureaucrats' salaries, but received just $40,000 in taxes. The balance was made up by the county government. That left Daihua with no money for poverty programs.

For the county government, the burden of bureaucrats' salaries means that it has to "borrow" money from other programs, such as agricultural development. That has held down the number of agricultural extension agents. Plans exist to help Daihua village plant an orchard, but no money is available to carry them out.

Officials in Guizhou are also notoriously inefficient, with one Chinese sociologist in Beijing complaining of a "Guizhou mentality," which he equated with despair and dependence on subsidies.

When the government newspaper Nanfang Zhoumou investigated the work habits of Daihua officials, it found that few officials bothered to show up for work.

Indeed, on a recent weekday the county offices remained closed all afternoon; the one bureaucrat who could be found smelled heavily of alcohol and said he had just came back from a "meeting" in another village.

"Sorry we haven't prepared a suitable greeting," the village chief said, plopping himself down in a villager's living room.

"We've been so busy holding meetings."

Pub Date: 12/10/96

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