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.
“The most arduous and heavy task facing China in completing the building of a moderately prosperous society is in rural areas, especially poverty-stricken regions,” Xi said during his visit to Luotuowan, which is 289.7km from Beijing.
Tang, at least, seemed convinced that Xi’s visit would somehow drastically improve their lives.
“We have to believe something good will come of this,” Tang said. “Otherwise, why would the party secretary have come all the way here?”
Asked what the government had done before Xi’s visit, he paused and shook his head.
“Not much,” he said.
Indeed, given China’s rampant corruption, another big question surrounding the anti-poverty campaign, announced a few days after Xi’s visit, is how much of the additional US$40 million that provincial authorities will funnel to Luotuowan and other villages in the surrounding county of Fuping next year will actually reach those in need.
While Chinese leaders certainly inhabit a cosseted world, tradition — and the tenets of good public relations — dictate that they occasionally mingle with the masses. According to popular lore, emperors would remove their dragon robes and venture out of the Forbidden City to see how their subjects were faring.
Mao’s choreographed rural tours were less successful, in part because the officials who arranged them often shielded him from peasant suffering, most notably during a famine, the result of an ill-conceived industrialization push, that began in the late 1950s and killed tens of millions.
“Every leader has their own way of doing it, but these days, they are surrounded by TV cameras,” said Lei Yi (雷頤), a historian at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶), who is affectionately known as Grandpa Wen, played well to the cameras as he consoled victims of natural disasters or donned an apron to stuff dumplings alongside ordinary Chinese during the Lunar New Year holiday.
In contrast, Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤), who is scheduled to leave office in March, often comes off as wooden. It did not help that some of his encounters were poorly planned or clumsily staged. Two years ago, after he sought to spotlight the nation’s low-income housing program by visiting the apartment of a beneficiary, Internet sleuths accused the woman of living elsewhere and renting out the apartment for a US$300 monthly profit.
Despite her tearful denials to the state news media, the episode proved to be a public-relations debacle for Hu.
Xi, who is known as a “princeling” because of his pedigree as the son of a revolutionary hero, often displays a natural ease in the company of farmers and factory workers. Recently, party propagandists have worked hard to polish his image as a “secretary of the people.”
In a lengthy profile published last month, Xinhua news agency lingered on his years as a “sent-down youth” during the Cultural Revolution, when he lived in exile among the cave-dwelling inhabitants of a village in Shaanxi Province.
Once he became inured to the fleas and the arduous labor Xi helped transform the villagers’ lives by organizing a cooperative for blacksmiths and building a methane collection tank Xinhua said.
“He arrived in the village as a slightly lost teenager and left as a 22-year-old man determined to do something for the people,” Xinhua said.
Xi’s arrival in Luotuowan late last month appears to have been relatively impromptu. Tang said he got only a half-hour warning that China’s most powerful official was arriving, although the village party chief, Gu Rongjin (顧榮金), said he had a week’s notice.
A jovial, gravel-voiced man, Gu, 60, says he lost count of the Chinese journalists, agricultural advisers and antipoverty specialists who have descended on the village in recent weeks.
“In the beginning, I was getting calls at 2 in the morning,” he said over dinner at the large guesthouse he and his wife operate during the summer.
Some of the experts have proposed turning Luotuowan’s stony fields into walnut groves or ginseng farms; one ominously suggested that residents clear out so the area, which is surrounded by breathtakingly craggy mountains, can be developed as an eco-tourist destination.
“Once the weather warms up, the development will begin,” Gu said with gusto.
Down the road, Tang and his wife, Gu Baoqing (顧寶青), proudly re-enacted how Xi sat on their communal bed, legs crossed, and asked about their daily struggles, including details of Tang’s untreated ailments, including circulation problems and heart disease.
“He had none of those officialdom airs,” his wife said.
To their surprise, a doctor from Beijing arrived a few days later and drove Tang to a hospital in the capital. He returned home with a bottle of medication, which he boasted costs about as much as he makes in a year.
However, one detail tempered Tang’s elation: The complimentary pills would last only a month. Asked what he would do when they ran out, he seemed perplexed.
“I guess I’ll just go without,” he said.