Sun, Feb 21, 2016 - Page 4 News List

FEATURE: New Year visit masks village’s cold reality

NY Times News Service, SHENSHAN VILLAGE, China

Sharing snacks with a ruddy-faced farming couple as a portrait of former Chinese leader Mao Zedong (毛澤東) presides from their mantel. Pounding rice into a doughy holiday treat with a giant wooden mallet. Warmly shaking hands with an elderly woman as an enthusiastic crowd gathers.

Those were some of the images of Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) as he swept into this village for his annual Lunar New Year pilgrimage to meet with ordinary citizens.

The bucolic scenes, shown on Chinese state television, cast Xi as a paternal leader in the footsteps of Mao, at home with the rustic virtues that once made this mountainous region of southeast China a birthplace of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) rural revolution.

However, those images conflict with contemporary reality here. Within days, the struggling community of 250 people is expected to be nearly empty.

Like an increasing number of villages across China, most of its people have left to find work or attend school elsewhere, returning to their ancestral home only for the New Year holiday. For the rest of the year, only about 50 people live in the village, most of them elderly, usually fending for themselves.

“Our village is an empty nest village,” said Xiong Jifu, 63, a retired village bookkeeper, who said he lives alone while his son works about 400km away.

“This is a very, very hard problem. If you do not go out to work, there is no income for the family. If you all leave, there is nobody left in the village,” he said

The contrast between the lyrical village life as seen on TV and the realities of rural social fragmentation is stark, even in the hamlet that was handpicked to greet China’s top leader. It is a pattern repeated across much of China, where many rural parents, children and grandparents often live scattered at great distances.

“Basically, rural society is in a state of collapse. Villagers come together only for the New Year,” said Zhang Ming (張鳴), a historian at Renmin University in Beijing who has written widely about rural issues and politics.

“Villages have become empty shells,” he said.

While CCP leaders’ rural pilgrimages every Lunar New Year holiday are a staple of party propaganda, China’s recent economic slowdown has made rural life even more difficult, magnifying the mismatch between image and reality.

Xi’s hour-long visit was partly to promote his promises to lift more people out of poverty through local relief programs.

However, villages like this one, whose terraced rice fields are crumbling from neglect, depend on the economy far beyond its borders. Remittances from the men and women who work in factories and menial jobs far away pay for new homes, televisions, refrigerators and other improvements.

Villagers said that China’s slowed growth, especially in manufacturing and building, had hurt their confidence in the future. Factory shutdowns are a concern, many said.

“We are worried about the factories,” said Peng Qinglian, a 43-year-old resident. He said he was jobless for six months last year when the auto parts factory where he worked in southern China closed.

“The pressure was intense. I had to find work, and it was hard for month after month,” he said.

The sunny portrayal of a village in crisis was just one of the ways Xi’s visit to this part of China was cast and choreographed to fit his zealous ideological agenda.

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