Jobs, homes and cows: China’s costly effort to eradicate extreme poverty

JIEYUAN VILLAGE, China – When the Chinese government offered free cows to farmers in Jieyuan, villagers in the remote mountain community were skeptical. They were worried that officials would ask them to return the cattle later, along with calves they could raise.

But the farmers keep the cows and the money they brought. Others received small flocks of sheep. Government workers also paved a road to the city, building new homes for the poorest residents of the town and re-ordering an old school as a community center.

Jia Huanwen, a 58-year-old farmer in the town of Gansu province, got a large cow three years ago that produced two healthy calves. He sold the cow in April for $ 2,900, just as much as he earned in two years growing potatoes, wheat and corn on the hill slopes in yellow clay in the area. Now he regularly buys vegetables for his family’s table and medicine for an arthritic knee.

“It was the best cow I’ve ever had,” he said. Jia said.

The town of Jieyuan is one of the many successes of President Xi Jinping’s ambitious promise to eradicate rural poverty by 2020. In just five years, China has said it has left more than 50 million farmers behind due to extreme poverty. cities.

But the town, one of six in Gansu visited by The New York Times without government oversight, is also proof of the significant cost of the ruling Communist Party’s approach to poverty alleviation. This approach relies on massive, possibly unsustainable subsidies to create jobs and build better housing.

Local cadres flanked to identify impoverished households – defined as living on less than $ 1.70 a day. They handed out loans, grants and even farm animals to poor villagers. Officials visited residents weekly to check on progress.

“We are fairly certain that China’s eradication of absolute poverty in rural areas was successful – given the mobilized resources, we are less sure that it is sustainable or cost-effective,” said Martin Raiser, director of the World Bank for China. .

Beijing has poured nearly $ 700 billion into poverty alleviation loans and grants over the past five years – about 1 percent of each year’s economic output. This excludes large donations by state-owned enterprises such as State Grid, a power transmission giant, which has poured $ 120 billion into rural electricity upgrades and has hired more than 7,000 workers to work on poverty alleviation projects.

The campaign became urgent again this year as the country was devastated due to the coronavirus pandemic and severe flooding. Provinces announced one by one that they had achieved their goals. In early December, Mr. Xi states that China “has achieved a significant victory that impresses the world”.

But Mr. Xi acknowledged that further efforts were needed to share wealth more widely. A migrant worker in a city in the coastal factory can earn as much in a month as a Gansu farmer earns in a year.

Mr. Xi also demanded that officials ensure that newly created jobs and aid for the poor do not disappear in the coming years.

Gansu, the poorest province in China, declared in late November that it had lifted its last provinces out of poverty. Only a decade ago, poverty was widespread in the province.

Hu Jintao, China’s leader before Mr. Xi, visited people living in simple houses with little furniture. Villagers ate so many potatoes that local officials were embarrassed when a young girl initially refused to take another with Mr. Hu eating in front of the television cameras because she was tired of it, according to a cable released by WikiLeaks.

Although many towns can still be reached only by single-lane roads, they are lined with street lights powered by solar panels. New pig farms, plant nurseries and small factories on an industrial scale arose and created jobs. Workers build new houses for farmers.

Three years ago, Zhang Jinlu woke up terrified when the rain-weakened mudstone walls of his house gave way. Half of the roofing felt fell down with leaves dirty, often missing him and his mother.

Officials in the town of Youfang have built a spacious new concrete house for them, with new furniture. Mr. Zhang, 69, now receives a $ 82 monthly allowance through the poverty program. His original home was rebuilt for him as a storehouse.

“This house used to be dilapidated, and it leaked when it rained,” he said. Zhang said.

The government helps private factories to buy equipment and pay salaries if they employ workers who are considered poor.

At Tanyue Tongwei Clothing & Accessories Company in southeast Gansu, about 170 workers, mostly women, school uniforms, T-shirts, down jackets and face masks were sewn together. Workers said several dozen employees in addition to their salaries receive extra payments from the poverty alleviation program.

Lu Yaming, the company’s legal representative, said Tanyue receives at least $ 26,000 a year in subsidies from poverty alleviation programs – of which $ 500 a year is paid to each of the 17 villagers considered poor.

But the viability of these factories without ongoing assistance is far from clear. Until the subsidies arrived, the factory often had problems paying wages on time, Mr. Lu said.

Inevitable questions revolve around whether some families have used personal ties with local officials to be eligible for grants. According to official statistics, corruption investigators punished 99,000 people nationwide last year in connection with efforts to alleviate poverty. At local eateries in communities like Mayingzhen, where a heavily seasoned dish of fried donkey meat costs $ 7, it’s about who received it and whether they really should qualify.

While the poverty alleviation program has helped millions of poor people, critics point to the rigid definitions of the campaign. The program helps people who have been classified as extremely poor at some point from 2014 to 2016, without adding others who have fallen through difficult times since then. It also helps very little to help poor people in big cities where wages are higher, but workers have to pay much more for food and rent.

According to the government’s qualifying criteria for eligibility for assistance, anyone who owns a car, has more than $ 4,600 assets or has a new or recently rebuilt home is excluded. People who float just above the poverty line of government still struggle to get themselves together, but are often not denied help with housing or other benefits.

Zhang Sumei, a 53-year-old farmer, earns $ 1,500 a year growing and selling potatoes and had to use her savings to build her house in concrete. She says she had to qualify for help for the extremely poor. Farming of Gansu’s infamous barren land is difficult and arduous.

“In this society, poor families are designated by cadres, and we have nothing.” she said bitterly.

The party’s campaign style approach also fails to address profound problems that are unduly detrimental to the poor, including the cost of health care and other gaping holes in China’s emerging social safety net. Towns offer limited health insurance – for example, only 17 percent of the cost of Mr. Jia’s arthritis medicine. Sturdy medical bills can ruin families.

Yang Xiaoling, a 48-year-old government-employed 48-year-old factory worker in Gansu, wept uncontrollably as she described the crippling debt she faced after paying her husband medical fees. , who suffered kidney failure.

Three years ago, she borrowed $ 7,700 at zero interest from a bank affiliated with the poverty alleviation program, and had to invest the money in buying livestock. But rather, she borrowed more money from family members and then spent all the money on a kidney transplant and medicine for her husband.

Now the whole loan is payable and she has no money to repay it. Follow-up medical treatments for her husband consume her entire salary. So the couple and their three children and her husband’s invalid parents pay monthly poverty relief payments of less than $ 50 per person.

‘I do not have the ability to repay it. I can not do otherwise, ”said me. Yang gesnik. “I have borrowed a lot of money and no one is lending me money now.”

Despite the challenges, the poverty alleviation program could have a long-term political advantage that helps ensure some of it survives. Gratitude for the program seems to strengthen the political power of the party in rural areas.

In Youfang, Mr. Zhang not only the poverty program, but also Mr. Xi praised, and compared him to Mao.

“It is good for the country to have Xi Jinping,” he said, “and national policy is good.”

Chris Buckley reported from Sydney. Liu Yi, Amber Wang and Coral Yang contributed research.