Trading family for a washing machine – Are China’s poor really better off?

China’s rise has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty, but has life really improved as much as that claim implies? As a recent study shows, life satisfaction in China has not increased over the past 20 years, which seems to suggest that increasing wealth has not brought about a correlating increase in happiness. Today we’ll be exploring why this might be the case in the countryside.

A few weeks ago I had the chance to visit several remote villages in central China. As the van bumped along rocky roads that wound over steep mountains for nearly 10 hours I started wondering how much life had really changed in many of these places over the past 60 years and whether or not these survivors would say that the countless campaigns of the past were worth it.

In the plus column– life expectancy has increased by 30 years, televisions occupy prominent places in many homes, some have washing machines, mobile phones are everywhere, famine is no longer a constant threat, and the children can read and write. This is no small accomplishment, and the Party is keen to remind us that these are all markers of a better life.

New home with a washing machine

The negative column though is much harder to quantify. The most striking thing you notice in the countryside is the almost complete lack of young people. In the dozen or so villages I visited, the only people between 10 and50 were a couple of pregnant women and a single doctor (she earned 1,000 rmb/month). These people in the middle made up a tiny fraction of those we saw. This has been true in every village I have visited since my first trip to China in 2006.

In China the family has always been the base unit, and despite Mao’s efforts to destroy the notion through collectivization, it seems that it has been China’s turn to capitalism that has most thoroughly dismantled it. One can’t help but wonder if the elderly wouldn’t be willing to trade in many of the new found conveniences in exchange for their children returning to the village.

Secondly, and I can’t emphasize this enough, work in the countryside is still incredibly difficult. Farm work is done almost exclusively by hand, the same way that it was done one hundred years ago (with the important difference that farmers now reap a much larger profit than they did under the feudal system). In the “wealthy” village we visited each farmer was entitled to roughly 1 mu of land (1/6 of an acre), which when planted with cash crops provided a decent income for many of the villagers (they could build a “modern” home within a decade and many had). In poorer villages though, many of the homes were mud and stick construction that had been improved with a concrete foundation. Despite the much touted fact that the Party has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty, there are still clearly hundreds of millions living far from the “moderately prosperous” promises. Furthermore, it should be noted that it is the farmers who have lifted themselves out of poverty more than the Party, as few policies privilege this group.

Finally, as one of my Chinese friends from the countryside (who works in rural development) pointed out – even in these “wealthy” villages, no one is more than an accident or illness away from crushing poverty. If a single harvest is missed, or if a drought strikes the region, everything could be lost. She also told me that after visiting hundreds of these villages, and coming from one herself, that in these last few years life has become increasingly difficult for farmers. She blamed this largely on the hukou system that restricts rural residents from sharing in the social benefits that urban residents receive, and a quickly rising cost of living.

While every development metric tells us that the countryside is better off, it’s worth questioning whether or not the farmers were asked about their ideas of prosperity.

Over the next few days we’ll be exploring several other issues facing rural China and try to get a better understanding of rural life in modern China.

5 responses to “Trading family for a washing machine – Are China’s poor really better off?”

  1. 34f67dg72 says:

    Where exactly did you travel to?

    • Tom says:

      Since I am going to be talking about issues related to local governments and individuals, I think it is best to be vague about the location so I can be specific about other aspects.

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  4. Chopstik says:


    I found your photo of a ramshackle abode with the satellite dish (on bricks) to be rather telling, I suspect, of the haphazard advances in China over the last several decades.

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