JINSHUIHE, Yunnan Province, China — In my recent trip to China, government officials took me to see an achievement they were so proud of: a cluster of plain-colored rural apartment buildings in a border town thousands of kilometers away from the skyscrapers of Beijing or Shanghai.
Located in the southeastern tip of Yunnan province, the apartments were nearly finished by the time China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs took me and and a dozen reporters from other Southeast Asian nations there. Each of the 12 apartment buildings has five floors. There are a total of 410 rooms, the size of each one in the range of 70 to 90 sqm.
By the end of November, villagers as far as 100 kilometer away from the site will begin to move and live here – without having to pay rent.
This is the face of the new “moderately prosperous China,” a term rooted in Confucianism and now adopted by the Communist regime under President Xi Jinping, which is embarking on a goal of eradicating absolute poverty in rural China by the end of 2020.
Officials say they aim to achieve that mission by relocating rural farmers to rent-free lodgings like the one I saw, and providing them with basic necessities. They also aim to export their model of success to the world.
“They can work and not just depend on farming. In that way, their living conditions can be improved,” said Hei Liying, head of publicity department at Yunnan’s Jingping county. She said 61 villages have been relocated in Yunnan so far between 2016 and 2018.
The goal has become a source of national pride, and Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying told us in Beijing that it’s nothing short of a “miracle” in the making.
“Seven hundred million people out of poverty [by] next year, no absolute poverty. That’s a miracle,” Hua said. “Not only for China but the world.”
The government spent about 30 million RMB, or 128 million baht, to build the apartment complex we visited in a village close to Jinshuihe, a border town equipped with a river port to Vietnam.
— Pravit Rojanaphruk (@PravitR) October 29, 2019
Top: Ethnic Zhuang residents from Malipo County, Yunnan Province, dance to greet the media delegates.
Officials said no one was forced to move to these apartments. The comment was immediately met with skepticism from the media entourage, and a reporter from Vietnam remarked that his country had tried a similar scheme and failed. Yet the Chinese official insisted that in China, the system simply works.
Hei, the county publicity officer, said villagers are being relocated due to soil erosion and poor transportation. They can seek new jobs working at factories and be part of the growing trade in the port town.
“They now have a very stable life. A small number decided to go back however, but the government will try to convince them to stay,” Hei said.
‘You Can’t Eradicate Urban Poverty’
Not all poor highland villagers are being relocated. A day earlier, when our group visited a village called Wang Gou further up the mountain, 60-year-old home owner Zheng Jiguan greets us at rural home with an offer of cigarettes.
His house was being rebuilt on government money. Zheng said he received 30,000 RMB (128,400 baht) of state subsidies to renovate his house in 2014. It also comes with a new clean toilet, and the village now enjoys tab water drawn in from a source three kilometers away.
Only local villagers who have no immediate family members working for the local government can apply to such home improvement subsidies, which are worth somewhere between 18,000 to 40,000 RMB (77,040 to 171,200 baht). The amount depends on the houses’ conditions; officials would personally inspect the sites to see how shabby and unsafe they are.
On top of that, a new stretch of concrete road was built in June with financial support from the Ministry of Foreign Affair.
But despite these efforts to make rural life more comfortable, we were told that 4,000 young people in the village and nearby communities still chose to migrate to the cities to seek work and a better income in the cities.
The trend of migration to the cities results in yet another problem for the Chinese authorities: urban poverty. Back in Beijing, I asked whether such issue could ever be solved. Even in otherwise prosperous city of Hong Kong, many sleep and live in “cage homes,” tiny apartment rooms they rented and shared with others.
Zhang Liang, deputy director of a poverty alleviation department, replied that while it’s possible to fight abject poverty in rural areas, and that goal would be met as early as the end of next year, one must concede that poverty will always exist in some forms.
“You can’t eradicate urban poverty,” Zhang said.
China’s index for absolute rural poverty in 2015 is 2.57 US dollars of income per head per day, higher than that of the World Bank’s which was 1.9 US dollar per head per day. The figure is adjusted up each year at around 3 percent.
“China’s standards are higher,” Zhang said, adding that the price of basic necessities is comparatively cheaper in rural China than the equivalence, say, in rural United States.
He added that providing people with access to compulsory education, basic medical care and housing are taken into consideration when it comes to implementing anti-poverty schemes, which have become an increasingly oft-cited raison d’être for President Xi and the Communist Party.
While people outside China can always debate about controversial issues of human rights in Tibet and Xinjiang provinces, or the political future of Hong Kong, it is clear that Xi seems aware that in order to keep masses ‘happy,’ the issue of poverty eradication cannot be ignored.
According to Zhang, 40 out of 50 trips Xi made to various parts of China since he came to power as the paramount leader in 2012 have to do with poverty alleviation programs.
Today, China also lends its poverty alleviation knowhow to nearby Southeast Asian countries from Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos to far-flung countries in the African continent like Namibia.
“Now we are willing to help other countries,” Zhang said.
Beyond Yunnan province and out of nearly 1.4 billion people of all China, Zhang said the nationwide project of relocating rural poor to better accommodations such as the flats we saw in Jinshuihe is almost completed. About 8.7 million households have been relocated in the past five years alone, and 1.3 million more will be moved within this year and the next.
“In six years, 82.39 million people were lifted out of poverty. This is unprecedented in China’s history,” Zhang said.
The writer would like to thank the Chinese Embassy in Bangkok, the Ministry of Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, and the Yunnan Provincial Government for the kind invitation to join the media trip to China.