Page last updated at 23:32 GMT, Wednesday, 12 May 2010 00:32 UK

Millions 'left behind' in rural China

By Mukul Devichand
Presenter, Tiger v Dragon, BBC Radio 4

Guo Long village, China
Beijing has been trying to deal with the urban-rural economic gap

On the road to Guo Long village, impressive new highways peter out into a dirt track - bullock carts rattle through the misty hillsides of China's south west.

But the government in Beijing is paying close attention to villages like this. Resentment is bubbling to the surface and rural Chinese feel left behind.

"Foreign companies come here, employ cheap labour and get all the money," says Chen Fu, a migrant worker who is back to visit his mother.

"It's not something we have any control over. It's our system."

Mr Chen stands out immediately among the bullock carts and farmers working in sugar cane fields, because of his crisply pressed shirt.

He left the village as a teenager 13 years ago. Others have now returned from difficult lives as migrant labourers to work the fields again.

"Foreign companies can exploit us, but many Chinese don't realise what's happening," says Mr Chen.

"They are being fooled by officials in China who have strong connections with foreign companies."

Welfare needs

These are bold sentiments, but rural people feel free to speak out because, after all, they are only echoing a debate that is now raging in Beijing.

Chen Fu
Chen Fu says many people are fooled by big foreign firms

According to World Bank figures, nearly 500 million Chinese people still live on less than $2 (£1.40) a day. The rural poor feel that the profits from China's economic expansion have passed them by.

At high-level government meetings, there has been conspicuous soul searching about how to deal with the income gap between urban and rural China.

One of the problems for China's rulers is that they are seen as legitimate only when they deliver economic benefits.

The influential economist Yang Yao recently wrote that the Communist Party's model of growth could soon collapse unless it allows China's 800 million rural people more of a say

He argues that the money eaten up by China's most impressive new projects might be better spent on welfare for the poor.

Ask Prof Yao about China's prestigious airports and showcase modern highways, and he is not impressed.

We will not only make the 'pie' of social wealth bigger by developing the economy, but also distribute it well
Premier Wen Jiabao

"This kind of investment benefits corporations disproportionately more than ordinary people," he says.

"But if you allow people more say in government decisions, then China's growth can be distributed more equally."

He is critical of Shanghai's Maglev train system, a super-fast monorail from the airport to the city which came with a hefty price tag.

"Basically that's a big toy," he says. "Each day it's losing money."

If people could chose, he thinks they would direct the money to the public good, like improving water supplies.

"Although China has grown so fast," he points out, "we still have 200 million people who don't have access to safe water."

Politically charged

The idea that the poor could be given a say in the Communist Party's decisions makes this debate politically charged.

Shanghai's Maglev train, China
China has invested heavily in urban development

China's rural areas have been a testing ground for reform in the past. In Guo Long, the village head was elected in a democratic process.

But as I left the tiny village of 300 families, I was reminded that the strong arm of the party and state are still everywhere.

I met a smartly dressed woman who told me she was from the village.

"It's improved amazingly here," she said, with flourish. "It's not true that people from here disagree with government policies."

But she refused to tell me her name and when I asked her what she did for a living she would only say, euphemistically, that she "serves the people" - an old Mao-era slogan.

She later admitted she worked in the government and was not from the village at all.

"I'm here to inspect the village and to see what is happening here," she explained.

China's central government has recently pledged to distribute wealth more fairly.

"We will not only make the 'pie' of social wealth bigger by developing the economy, but also distribute it well," Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said. He promised to "resolutely reverse the widening income gap".

New welfare policies could head off some of the discontent in China's countryside. But there is no plan yet to give rural people a direct voice.

Tiger v Dragon is on BBC Radio 4 on Monday 10 May and 17 May at 2000 BST. Or listen again via the BBC iPlayer.

Print Sponsor

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific