Beijing’s relentless march to eliminate poverty

Xi Jinping is ploughing billions into resettling rural residents. Will it work?

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Like many adults in rural China, Li Xiuying has tried migrating for work. She toiled at a sock-making factory elsewhere in Yunnan province, but was too anxious to stay for long.

“I wasn’t used to it. I missed my mother every day,” says Ms Li, who is in her mid-40s. After two years worrying whether her mother was well fed and cared for, she returned home to her village of elaborate wooden houses perched on a steep forest slope, where neighbours cook over wood fires, tend walnut trees and raise black pigs.

The outside world has not been kind to Ms Li. She dropped out of school after third grade because she had ulcers. Her ID card reads “February daughter” because a careless bureaucrat recorded her nickname rather than her real name. After she returned from the sock factory, she could not afford to buy medicine for her invalid husband, so she sent her sons off to work instead.

Ms Li’s next encounter with the outside world will be irreversible. Her village in the Nujiang valley near Myanmar will soon be torn down to fulfil China’s latest, most ambitious campaign: the complete elimination of absolute poverty.

Fewer than 1 per cent of people in China live on less than $1 a day, Beijing’s definition of “absolute poverty”. Many belong to ethnic groups that differ in language, religion or appearance from the dominant Han Chinese. Ms Li, for instance, is one of the 1.4m-strong Lisu people, a “hill tribe” native to the mountains of India, Myanmar, Thailand and southwestern China. Most, like her, are caught between the need for money and the tug of family and habit.

Beijing’s solution is to move them all. Ms Li, her invalid husband, her elderly mother and her neighbours will be swept up in a radical experiment. Remote counties are frantically building roads, apartment blocks and vocational training centres to consolidate people in nearby towns at a cost of $18.7bn this year alone. The goal is to cut the number of people living in absolute poverty from 30m in 2017, to zero in 2020.

“China wants to be an example to the world,” says Li Haishu, standing member of the Nujiang prefecture Communist party committee. “You can only do this in China. I’ve never heard of another country in history doing this.”

Even as Beijing faces the implications of a slowdown in growth, eliminating absolute poverty is President Xi Jinping’s signature domestic policy, a project that ranks among the grandiose plans of China’s past in its scale and ambition for the complete transformation of society. Plans hatched in Beijing include rewards for local officials who exceed their targets, resulting in a single-minded mobilisation of resources with little regard for the cost.

China is already admired for transforming itself in just 40 years from one of the poorest countries in the world to the second-largest economy, with market reforms and massive doses of foreign investment that allowed about 700m Chinese to work their way out of poverty. But that transformation is far from complete.

Anti-poverty plans focus on “three regions and three prefectures”, engulfing 18m people on the Tibetan plateau and in Xinjiang province, on the central Asian frontier, as well as in Linxia, a Hui Muslim area in Gansu province, and in Liangshan, home to the Yi or Lolo people in Sichuan province. Nujiang, a river valley in Yunnan, has fewer people but absolute poverty is “deeper”, afflicting a third of the population.

Nujiang is no stranger to grand plans. In the 1950s, Mao Zedong moved millions of Chinese people to border regions to secure his new republic. State-owned logging companies built big towns in the Nujiang valley. After the forests were gone, they traded timber from Myanmar. A decade ago, a dam was planned for the Nu River, which becomes the Salween after it crosses the border. Environmentalists managed to block it, after a national appeal.

Now Nujiang is going all out on Mr Xi’s “poverty alleviation” drive. It is spending Rmb10bn ($1.5bn) to move 100,000 people from rural villages to the outskirts of towns by year-end. Their vacated land will be leased by government-run agribusinesses to grow cash crops like pepper or medicinal plants.

“Moving people to cure poverty is a national policy,” says Na Yunde, prefecture party secretary. “To develop these places we must move people.”

In April, the Financial Times joined a three-day, government-organised tour of poverty alleviation efforts in the valley. “Rushing into a socialist society from the last phases of primitive society, Nujiang has leapt thousands of years in one step,” exclaims a promotional video.

Not everyone welcomes this great leap, however. Villagers worry about losing their chickens and pigs and, most of all, their land. In one village, residents appeared to be barricaded in a courtyard as the convoy of journalists passed. Locals contacted independently of the tour say opinions are split: young people like the idea of modern housing, but the older generation is deeply reluctant.

The Lisu show “a strong disinclination” to leave their hills and settle in the lowlands, wrote Danish ethnomusicologist Hans Peter Larsen in 1984. When they do, “they normally are assimilated in less than one generation.”

He Qingniu, 70, spends most of her day gathering wood and tending pigs. Her youngest son’s phone number is scrawled on to the cooler next to her four-poster bed. She is innumerate, as well as illiterate, and the number is there in case a neighbour needs to use it in an emergency. Ms He thinks moving to a new settlement will be good for future generations — her grandchildren already go to boarding school down in the valley — but she is not sure that it will suit her.

To counter concerns that resettlement will wipe out Lisu culture, the government says it will organise dancing every night. Ms He, who will not be able to join in the dancing because of her bad knees, has not seen the settlement where she will be placed in October, but her son went to check it out. “He told me not to worry so much,” she says.

Down in the valley, the sun beats hot on new yellow apartment blocks rising alongside the Nu River. The six-storey buildings do not have lifts but they do have slogans, painted in big red characters: “listen to the party, follow the party”; “move out of the mountains to hasten prosperity”; “industriously build a new home”.

Shop assistant Mi Chunmei, 22, thinks her new apartment is “amazing!” She dropped out of high school because the fees were too expensive. But her earnings at an eastern textile factory were enough to get her younger brother into college. Ms Mi and her brother hope to open their own shop, so their father, an illiterate plasterer, can retire.

“We want our parents to live better,” she says. Her father is proud of the new apartment but her grandmother, like many in the older generation, is unhappy about the move.

Ms Mi and her brother “want to get out of poverty but we don’t want to leave our culture behind,” she adds. She treasures the long baishi, traditional ballads that her mother and aunt sing, but she has not had the chance to learn them herself.

Next door, whitewash has been slapped on bare concrete walls. “It’s nice here, the Communist party is nice,” says Li Changxin, beaming in the glow of pink curtains. “Our first feeling was excitement. We didn’t have to pay a cent and we got such a pretty home.” His children, ages 7 and 9, are homesick. Their school is 20 minutes away from the settlement, but they only come home twice a month.

Boarding schools are an essential part of the leap “from primitive society to socialism”, officials insist, when asked why a $1.5bn resettlement budget does not stretch to school buses. “These kids can’t learn anything from their parents, their quality is too low,” says Liu Dehua, a Nujiang prefecture official. “Actually being all together at school is good. It trains them to live in a collective environment and leaves more time for the parents to go out to work.”

Whether tentatively, like Ms Li, or enthusiastically like Ms Mi, most of the people introduced during the tour had already taken work in factories in cities farther east. But for Nujiang’s income goals to be realised, the majority of the resettled farmers will have to join the vast flow of China’s rural migration to coastal factories — reluctantly leaving children and old folk behind.

“By bringing people down from the mountains, we can ensure that at least one person per family has a job,” says Mr Na, the party secretary.

Nujiang is paired with Zhuhai, an industrial city in the Pearl River delta. Companies including Gree, the air conditioning manufacturer, are contracted to hire Nujiang workers for Rmb3,500 a month: well above farming incomes in Yunnan, but roughly half of the average Zhuhai wage of Rmb6,390 a month. About 6,000 young workers have already left for Zhuhai.

South of Lushui city in Yunnan province, a 10-storey vocational education centre towers over the Nu River. Next to the education centre stands an equally large and empty “blood centre”, where nurses will be trained to take blood, officials say, although they are vague as to where the blood will go.

But where are the students? After a number of conflicting answers (sample: “the students aren’t here, because it is Sunday”), journalists were shown a large room next to the educational centre’s on-site police station. There, dozens of people sewed navy blue uniform vests and camouflage jackets.

One newly resettled farmer told the FT he was glad to be learning a skill like sewing, but with a 7-year-old child, he had no intention of migrating for work. “I’ve got my old mother and my kid to look after,” he says. “I can’t leave.”

The camouflage uniforms are destined for forest fire patrols that will employ 13,000 people, as part of a job creation programme, officials say.

Poverty alleviation in China has taken on a life of its own. The “three regions, three prefectures” programme spent Rmb89.79bn in 2018, according to an FT survey of provincial plans. Other provinces have their own schemes.

Meanwhile, every relatively wealthy city, state-owned enterprise and government unit has been assigned to “lift up” a poor area. Nationwide, about 2m people are slated for resettlement this year.

More than a third of the funds have been soaked up by Xinjiang, where the Muslim population chafes against Beijing’s restrictions on language, religion and employment. More than 1m Uighurs and Kazakhs have been forced into “re-education camps” in Xinjiang — including a popular football player, musicians and college professors, and anyone who has travelled abroad.

Stung by international criticism of the crackdown, China says the camps are “vocational training centres” where “deradicalised” trainees learn the Mandarin language and skills like sewing.
Even in Nujiang, the poverty alleviation package involves a complete cultural transformation along with new physical surroundings. Resettled adults must attend classes in Mandarin and vocational skills. Christian churches in the countryside are used for lectures on Communist party dogma.

“At the first opportunity, we go straight to their hearts,” says Su Yisheng, who is charged with educating rural people in “Xi Jinping thought”. “As Chairman Mao said, ‘a small spark can start a wildfire’. We can enlighten the whole prefecture.”

In mid-April, Nujiang’s poverty alleviation campaign scored its first victory. The Drung ethnicity, in the thinly-populated Dulong river valley, officially met its poverty alleviation goals, facilitated by new dams, roads and a tunnel. Yet success comes at the expense of its budding eco-tourism industry: the valley is closed to any visitors this summer.

Meanwhile, the Nujiang government dreams of turning the Nu River into the “Grand Canyon” and launching a World Cup of white-water rafting. Partly due to the earlier campaign by the environmentalists, the Nu is the only free-flowing river left in China. The government is blasting cliffs to build a “Beautiful Highway” along the river, complete with roadside flowers and 30 rest stops. Each rest stop will have a different ethnic theme.

“Two years from now the highway will be built and the poverty alleviation work completed,” says Guo Weiming, vice minister at the State Council Information Office in Beijing, who has toured Nujiang. “You won’t believe this area was ever poor.”

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