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Last Updated: Wednesday, 22 September 2004, 13:23 GMT 14:23 UK
China's rural poor left behind

By Louisa Lim
BBC, Ningxia

The Jin family's cave
The Jin family could not afford to build a house
Every time Jin Hua visits her parents, she has to walk for hours across the windblown, hostile hills.

For her, hardship is a way of life. Poverty is ingrained from generation to generation.

The family home is a cave scooped out of the yellow-earth hillside near the village of Liudian, in Ningxia province.

The Jins cannot afford to build their own house, and there is no rent to be paid on a cave.

Jin Hua's mother, Ma Yulian, also knows the pain that poverty brings.

She has suffered from stomach-ache for years, and even though she now has a huge growth she still cannot afford to see a doctor.

"I was so sick that I even went blind for some time," she said.

"I can't sleep at night because of the pain. But I have no money to treat my disease."

Mr Jin
Farmers like Mr Jin have been getting relatively poorer
Her husband, Jin Xiaoting, scratches out a living from growing crops in the dry soil.

He sells anything he can afford to, but last year he says he made just $30, and paid almost two-thirds of that in tax.

He is bitter about how much of his meagre income he has to hand over to the state.

"In 1994, the government said we wouldn't have to pay taxes any more, but it never happened," he said.

"The central government's policies are good, but local officials don't usually follow them."

Model village

For many small farmers like Mr Jin, high taxes are a huge source of discontent.

In effect, China's poorest citizens are subsidizing the modernisation of its cities.

Now the gap between rich and poor in China is one of the biggest in the world - and the government has been forced to face up to the problem of poverty.

Ma Fu, the mayor of Guyuan - one of China's poorest regions - seemed eager to show off a local poverty alleviation project, pointing out the new wells, fruit trees and cowsheds that villagers were given subsidies to build.

"Any government must gain backing from the ordinary people. Here we give a lot of aid," he said.

Ma Fu, the mayor of Guyuan
Ma Fu says poverty-alleviation is working
"Every house in every village here has accepted some sort of government help."

His message looked persuasive on the surface - the model village has several new houses with shiny white tiles and televisions.

But despite their new homes, the inhabitants did not seem happy.

"This project hasn't really made us satisfied with our lives," said one young resident.

In order to pay her school fees, her parents have both left the village to find work, and she had been left to tend the cows.

"I have enough to eat but I have no energy," she said. "We've told the government about our situation, but they haven't helped."

Dream of wealth

Jin Hua and her family, sitting in their cave, always have potatoes and noodles for supper. In fact, for years, the family has eaten little else.

For now it is just enough to satiate their hunger.

The family say they have accepted their poverty, understanding that others must get rich first.

It is with this prospect of wealth that China's leaders continue to maintain their grip over the countryside.

But for the Jins, the days of plenty are simply a mirage.

The Communist Party has built its legitimacy on lifting the poorest out of poverty.

But now it is starting to fail them, and that could undermine its rule.

This is the second in a series of reports from central China by Louisa Lim. The first article can be read here:

China boom leaves many behind
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