Page last updated at 16:58 GMT, Thursday, 14 February 2008

Rural poor struggle on in China

By Peter Day
BBC Global Business in Ningxia

Chinese farmer
Farmers in Ningxia are struggling with oppressive droughts
China's economic policy has been about the engineering of a great migration from the country to the city, to bring people out of poverty.

But what happened to the people left behind?

Two hours south-west of Beijing by plane is Ningxia, the autonomous region known for its a big local minority of Muslim people - called the Hui, they make up around 17 percent of the population.

But Ningxia is also notable as an area where people are not sharing in China's phenomenal growth. Poor anyway, the region has been further afflicted by two years of drought.

"This is really one of the poorest places in China," says Tao Shang Yao, a former government official and member of the Ningxia province's foreign affairs office who now works as a poverty-fighting officer for the mountain villages.

"Farmers don't have enough drinking water - they have to collect the rain to drink. If it is dry, they have to go 10km to fetch water. Lives there are really difficult.

"This year, because of drought, there has been no harvest."

'No way out'

Drive further down the narrowing roads in the region and you come to Xianjung village, where life is getting harder every day.

People here are certainly not sharing in the economic boom - in fact it seems they are centuries away from it.

Newly opened real estate development in Yinchuan in Ningxia
The Chinese government wants to move people to urban areas
The village has 18,000 inhabitants, nearly all who live in manmade caves. They are all farming families, and at least 500 of those have to seek work outside the village for at least some of the year.

No rain at all has meant that the crop planting season in Spring has been devastating.

"We live through the money from the government - without that we would go hungry," says Mar Hui Chow, who farms a plot near the village around the size of a football field.

"Personally, I want to leave this place. But we have no way out.

"I want to live in the city, but I am too old to make a living there."

Anti-poverty campaigner Tao Shang Yao has been working to helped the local school - dispatched there by the provincial government with a twin role in the village, to help the farmers out of poverty and to improve education.

"This is a village inhabited by Hui people, who traditionally don't attach much importance to education - especially that of girls," he said.

"So we are trying to encourage them to pay more attention to this."

Urban moves

Xianjung is one of 700 villages designated by the government as the poorest in the country, with the target of lifting a third of them out of poverty every two years.

To this end, anti-poverty workers have been dispatched to 270 villages to help farmers increase productivity.

Map of Ningxia
Tao Shang Yao has applied for 1m yuan, or renminbi, to help the village, but says that compared to the scale of the drought this is "nothing."

And he says that ultimately, relocation is "the only way out for the farmers."

"In our province, urbanisation is the basic policy of the provincial government. We encourage people to move to the towns and the cities.

"It's a general trend. No-one can stop it."

But leaving is not an option for everyone. Follow a traditional farm track and we end up at the house of Mao Yu Bah, his wife and three children, probably the poorest family in the whole area.

They live in a cave house with a 19th century stove with a pipe sticking out of the door, and an earthen bed. For them, the economic boom might as well be on the moon.

They try to survive on a monthly government handout of 200 renminbi - about $25 a month.

"I have lived here all my life - and it has always been difficult," Mr Mao says.

"Without rain, there is no harvest. To make money people go out to labour. But I cannot go out - if I go out to work my family cannot survive, so I have to stay at home.

"One son has liver disease, and another has broken his bones. So neither can go out."

Back and forth

Meanwhile, further up the Yellow River - where waters are being channelled into new parts of the Ningxia region - in an indication of what might be the future for the rural poor.

Here, it was decided that the only way to improve the lives of the farmers in the hills is to move them wholesale 200 miles to relatively productive, irrigated plains.

Hill is exploded to access local super-quality coal
The mountains are hostile terrain - although hold rich resources
Among the newly-built townships is a village called Me Ne Yin, which did not exist 20 years ago.

Now it thrives, with guaranteed water diverted from the Yellow River via canals to the farmland.

"Personally, I think this is the only solution to improve the lives of the people in the mountains," says Tao Shang Yao.

"When we began to start the relocation programme, we began to move the whole village to a new place."

But the government found that, once it had built the infrastructure, it was very difficult to persuade people to stay.

Some took many attempts to finally settle, going back and forth between the new village and their old home town.

It indicates how, as China hurtles towards becoming a giant, modern nation, vast swathes are in danger of being left behind.

The children are not despairing as yet. But soon they will be faced with a choice - upheaval, or confronting dire poverty if they stay where they are.

Whatever the Olympics throws up in August, the painful modernisation of China has some way to go yet.


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