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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.

China’s biggest environmental problem isn’t the air

Over the last year we’ve discussed the problem of air pollution nearly a dozen times, and while this is a pressing issue that effects hundreds of millions of people, there is a bigger environmental challenge facing China – water pollution. More specifically, there is a shortage of water that can be used. You can tell it is a serious problem, given the frank discussion of the issue in the People’s Daily, and that unlike smoking or public defecation, it has its own public service campaign.

A recent article from People’s Daily highlights some of the problems (it’s worth reading the full thing):

  • UP to 40 percent of China’s rivers were seriously polluted last year after 75 billion tons of sewage and waste water was discharged into them
  • 20 percent of rivers were so polluted their water quality was rated too toxic even to come into contact with
  • nearly 300 million rural residents lack access to drinking water
  • The per capita of water resources is only 2,100 cubic meters annually, or about 28 percent of the world’s average
  • About two-thirds of Chinese cities are “water-needy”

Unlike air pollution, water shortages (caused partially by pollution and industry) disproportionaly effects the poor. For example, not only does a drought wipe out a family’s crop for the year, but often wipes out their entire savings. Without savings, medical bills and education move out of reach, which can set in motion a series of events that limits the family for years.

It’s also important to note that farmers are often left with few choices other than using the polluted water to save their crops. This results in vegetables with high levels of heavy metals. As reported in the documentary “The Warriors of Qiugang,” farmers admit that they sell these crops to outsiders fully aware of the danger they pose to the health of others.

Notice the correlation between rainfall and poverty stricken provinces.

A story related to Yunnan’s ongoing drought, which has effected over 3 million people, showed one family’s story:

“My family was so happy to see rain that we all ran out of the house to watch it,” said Zheng Guocheng, a tobacco planter in Yunnan’s Songming county.

The farmer told China Daily that his vegetable yield had been reduced by 30 percent compared with last year because of the drought.

“Now is a crucial time for growing tobacco. If rain had not fallen, we would have had to carry water to the fields.”

Economic losses caused by “weather related disasters” cost China nearly 3% of its GDP.

Fortunately, some action is being taken. In Ningxia water shortages were so frequent that people locked their wells. A recent investment of over 1 billion RMB though helped to bring drinking water to 200,000 rural residents. While this is progress, there are still over 500,000 rural inhabitants (out of 1.36 million in Ningxia) who lack basic access.

Furthermore, as more people access water in Ningxia, the water pressures down stream will only become more pressing.

The key will be improving efficiency in water usage. This could mean abandoning farmland in the most resource intensive regions and limiting mining operations that produce water pollution while using thousands of gallons. Interestingly enough, Han farmers in Xinjiang working to open new farmlands, and Han miners in Inner Mongolia digging for coal, have been the source of ethnic tensions in the last year.

Tomorrow we’ll be looking at China’s last ditch effort to save the north from desertification.

Top China stories of the week: 11/27-12/04

  • China halts U.S. academic freedom at the class door, from Bloomberg, was the better of two excellent pieces this week on the topic of joint-managed colleges in China (the other being No academic freedom for China). This piece generated a lot of discussion about education, and one friend who actually studies at the school mentioned that the article should have also examined discussions in the classrooms that are actually much freer than she had expected.
  • Hepatitis C outbreak hits Anhui, Henan, from Caixin, is an in depth look at how lax regulations and the recycling of used needles at local clinics led to over 110 people being infected. Supposedly this problem was fixed nearly a decade ago. This coming out near World AIDS Day is a reminder of how far China still has to come in the battle to control blood born diseases.
  • More balanced ballots, from People’s Daily, explores how China’s local elections are changing. Since it comes from State media, be sure to read between the lines, as this is still a sensitive issue. Also the Fang Binxing mentioned in this article is credited as being the creator of the Great Firewall of China.
  • Huntsman, China, and the Bears, from Evan Osnos at the New Yorker, takes a look at Huntsman’s recent claim that China’s internet generation is going to “take down China,” alongside worries about the real estate market.
  • How China’s human rights record is like Michael Jackson, from the Atlantic, examines a Chinese diplomat’s recent claim that just like the King of Pop, China is unjustly scorned while generously giving to the needy. The author also looks at some of the less flattering ways that this makes an apt comparison.
  • China’s superior economic model, by Andy Stern, promotes the idea that a mixture of open markets and planned economy is the best policy. While he makes a few strong points, he also fails to really understand what is happening on the ground in China as a result of these five-year plans, like ignoring how targets are met in ways that do far more harm than good. Very much worth a read none-the-less.
  • China takes a tough line of poverty, from People’s Daily, shows what China’s poverty threshold increase means for millions of poor Chinese. It should be applauded that China greatly expanded their definition of “poor,” it is also worth noting that this is still below the international standard. Also China’s “poor” population expanded by 500%, but there was only a 21% increase in poverty reduction related spending.

China Doesn’t Want to Rule the World

After working in the hospital for almost 10 months, my co-workers are finally starting to talk with me about politics in China (this serves as a good reminder of 1. how important relationships are in China and 2. how hard it can be to get interesting information). Two of the women were fairly willing to talk one-on-one with me about it, but when the third woman would come in the room the conversation would die instantly.

Whenever we have these chats someone always makes sure to close the door (sometimes I even do it). It’s not that I would normally be worried about what is said, but the Party office of the hospital is directly next door, and one can never be too careful.

One of the most interesting bits to come out of our discussions is their insistence that China is a developing country that would never want to be a global power. This isn’t the first time I’ve heard these two arguments, which seem to be common knowledge for many Chinese people.

Developing Country

I would normally agree that China isn’t quite a developed country yet, but there are more than 100 million people in China living in cities that could be mistaken for New York or LA. Usually the person telling me this lives in one of China’s more prosperous cities, which is hard to stomach (the co-worker in this case owns a big apartment, two cars, and is considering spending a small fortune to send her child to school in the US).

The part that bothers me is that “Developing Country” is used as an excuse. China can’t cut pollution because it is a developing country, China can’t build schools because it’s a developing country, China can’t give people freedom of speech because it’s a developing country…

Meanwhile, China has spent billions of dollars on high-speed rail, hosting the Olympics, and launching men into space. Clearly, being a developing country doesn’t limit which vanity projects can be funded.

This argument of being a developing country though is crucial for China’s second claim:

China doesn’t want to rule the world

Forget the news about China’s aircraft carrier, growing role in Africa, and second largest GDP, China doesn’t have any real power in the world. Just today they posted a story on People’s Daily that Kissinger had said “China won’t be the next superpower,” which seems like an odd thing to publish days before the Party’s 90th anniversary, unless that is the message the Party wants repeated.

This is a part of the Party’s crucial creation myth (which we’ll be getting more into soon) that China was a powerless and abused country until their rule began. If China is powerful now, than the Party would have fulfilled it’s role and may no longer be needed by the masses.

It also is a convenient dodge for responsibility; powerless, developing countries are picked on by the rich western ones who have already exploited the world’s resources and people. This is China’s favorite argument as to why it shouldn’t have to limit its carbon output, even though it now pollutes more than all of South America and Africa combined.

Tomorrow we’ll be looking at a few more myths crucial to the Party’s rule.

China’s Largest Land Grab

On Tuesday I reported briefly on Shaanxi’s plan to relocate 2.7 million residents from the northern and southern parts of the province. The local gov’t reported that this was a major push to help break the cycle of poverty that has been effecting those regions for generations. They also cited the fact that both areas are prone to disasters, and so this project would help save lives.

I wasn’t so optimistic about the project, and wondered when exactly we would find out the real motivation behind it.

Today as I was combing through the part of the People’s Daily I realized they had yet again buried the lead.

The headline is “Shaanxi plans to move 2.7 million to safer areas“, and the first page of the article is the same optimistic fluff that I reported on Tuesday. The second page though broke the real story – Mining companies are funding the project.

Why would they spend nearly 2 billion RMB to help “rescue” people from poverty-stricken areas?

The two areas’ total resources are worth more than 42 trillion yuan – one third of the national total – according to the provincial government website.”         – quoted from People’s daily

Even within the story local people say that they are suspicious of the plan,

“It’s not difficult to imagine that these companies have some secret deal with the provincial government for their own interests in the region,” Dong Miao, a resident of the city of Yulin in the north of the province, told the Global Times.”

So now you can see why I am at times a bit pessimistic when I read the Chinese news papers. Now that we know there are billions of RMB involved in this project, we can also assume that later there will be stories of forced demolitions, corruption, mine collapses, and protests from farmers saying they didn’t receive enough compensation.

Hopefully this story will gain traction with Chinese netizens, who are the only ones who would be able to stop this project.

Generally speaking when enough people complain quickly about a problem like this the national gov’t will take action. What usually happens though is the censors block the story before it becomes widely known, in which case it becomes a sensitive topic, officially off limits for discussion.

I will continues following this story over the next few months and we’ll see what happens.

How Poor Are Chinese Farmers?

Yesterday we saw that China’s farmers occupy the lowest rung of Chinese society. Today we’ll be looking at why China’s farmers are also at the bottom economically, as we try to answer the question, How poor are Chinese farmers?

Officially the average rural income is 5,919rmb, which is about $900. That’s well above the World Bank’s poverty measure of $1/day. However I’m skeptical of these official numbers.

A few months ago I helped the charity I work with edit their annual report and found the annual per capita income for some of China’s least developed areas.

Now keeping in mind that this charity is working in some of China’s poorest areas, it is still surprising to see that none of these villages were closer than 2/3 of what the supposed national average is. Also considering that these are averages, it’s important to remember that even this small amount of wealth is likely concentrated in a few hands.

The average Chinese farm (assuming a 3 person family) is only 1.1 acres. Which in a good year would produce about 6,000rmb (compare this to factory wages).

Reuters reported yesterday that it is now becoming common for migrant workers to loan their land out to their neighbors who stay behind. Their report from Shandong province highlighted a “cheery” woman who was earning 40rmb a day working in another person’s field.

Their idea was that this trend will ultimately lead to bigger farms with richer farmers. I for one am doubtful.

Earlier this week a man from that same province committed suicide after massive losses on his farm. This was not due to blight or drought, but a price drop. Speculators had bet heavily on spring cabbage, which caused the price to go up, and more farmers to plant the vegetable.

Now there is far too much cabbage. Farmers are selling cabbage at .2rmb/kilo, even though it cost them 1rmb/kilo to grow.

Note: there is still food price inflation, about 10%, the cost increase in food is due to transportation and does nothing to help the farmers.

The point of this blog though is to move past the numbers and look at what all of this information means for individuals.

In Guangxi I noticed that the average female college student was only 5 feet tall, and about 90 pounds, in Nanjing it would be hard to find someone that small. The reality is that you don’t even need to look at the numbers to know that the economic gap between the countryside and city is growing, you can see it in the students.

Tomorrow we’ll be taking a trip down to the farm, and I’ll be sharing with you the story behind this blog’s header image.