Never before has grinding poverty had such a shiny silver lining. At least that is how the 600 corn farmers who inhabit the remote mountain hamlet of Luotuowan in north China are feeling in the weeks since Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (習近平) dropped by to showcase their deprivation.
With a gaggle of local Chinese Communist Party (CCP) chiefs and photographers in tow, Xi ducked into ramshackle farmhouses, patted dirt-smudged children on the head and, with little prompting, nibbled on a potato plucked from Tang Rongbin’s (唐榮斌) twig-fueled cooking fire.
“It was as if we had met Mao [Zedong (毛澤東)],” said a still-incredulous Tang, 69, who shares a bed with five family members.
The visit to the village in Hebei Province, broadcast on national television, was meant to highlight Xi’s concern for China’s rural poor. However, it was also an important propaganda flourish intended to burnish the new leader’s “bona fides” as an empathetic man of the people.
“I want to know how rural life is here,” he said at one point as the camera lingered on the unvarnished details of the Tang family’s poverty: a single light bulb, a tattered straw ceiling, a huddle of grimy pots and mounds of detritus. “I want to see real life.”
However, for all Xi’s celebrity wattage, the real manna began to rain down on Luotuowan after he and his entourage left. Money, quilts and pledges of government help have been pouring in from across the country. The government arranged for each household to receive US$160 in cash, a bottle of cooking oil and a sack of rice, a precious commodity where corn gruel and corn cakes are often the main course.
That was just the beginning. A businessman from China’s northeast was so moved by Luotuowan’s suffering that he drove 804.7km with more cash and a carload of flat-screen televisions. A government work crew whitewashed the village’s stone walls, adding a band of turquoise paint for good measure.
Then came the government researchers, who were instructed to solve Luotuowan’s intractable poverty, perhaps by pursuing Xi’s suggestion that, with outside expertise, “the people can make yellow soil into gold.”
However, whether the official visit by Xi, who was recently named CCP general secretary and is scheduled to be anointed president in March, will have a lasting impact on this isolated community — much less others like it — remains to be seen. The average per capita income in the village, about US$160 a year, is less than half the official threshold for poverty, and it is a tiny fraction of the average urban income of slightly less than US$4,000. Most young people have long since fled for jobs in distant cities.
The challenge to lift up impoverished backwaters like Luotuowan is a daunting one for the CCP, which has vowed to address a yawning wealth gap that some experts say threatens social stability, perhaps even the party’s hold on power. Although official statistics released this month suggested that income inequality has eased in recent years, many outside analysts say it has actually gotten worse, making China among the world’s most unequal societies.
In China’s rural hinterland, where half the nation’s 1.3 billion people live, incomes are, on average, less than a third of those in cities. During the party’s 18th National Congress in November last year that elevated Xi, Chinese leaders pledged to double per-capita incomes by 2020.