Fri, Oct 13, 2017 - Page 6 News List

Chinese village shows the cracks in Xi’s bid to end poverty

AFP, LANKAO, China

A woman walks past a billboard featuring a photograph of Chinese President Xi Jinping visiting residents in Zhangzhuang village, China, on Sept. 28.

Photo: AFP

When Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) last visited Lankao County, it was famous for two things — poverty and the government official who reputedly died trying to end it.

Three years later, the hardscrabble area has undergone a Cinderella-like transformation, waltzing across the national poverty line just in time for the Chinese Communist Party’s twice-a-decade congress that opens on Wednesday next week.

With its freshly paved roads, modern community center and memorial to Xi’s visit, Lankao’s Zhangzhuang village has become a showpiece for the president’s ambitious and politically critical campaign to wipe out rural poverty by 2020.

However, a drastically different picture emerges on the outskirts, where farmers still live in ramshackle homes and move along rutted lanes.

The contrast highlights the difficulty of spreading the wealth of the world’s second-largest economy, a central mission for Xi as he prepares to accept a second five-year term as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party.

Success is crucial for the credibility of the party, which came to power promising a radical redistribution of the nation’s wealth, and it would help solidify Xi’s stature as the most powerful leader in decades.

In the three years since Xi’s visit, Lankao’s official poverty rate dropped from 12 percent to less than 2 percent, making it just the second county to be removed from a national registry of almost 600 poor areas.

Officials attribute the success to better directed aid and low-interest micro-loans that have helped needy families increase their income by buying livestock and farming equipment, but Xi also took personal responsibility for the area of more than 760,000 in 2014 as part of a program that paired top party leaders with local governments.

He chose Lankao — and Zhangzhuang specifically — for its association with Jiao Yulu (焦裕祿), an official who became a national hero after famously working himself to death helping farmers eke out a living along the flood-prone Yellow River five decades ago.

The president’s visit “gave us encouragement and inspiration,” said local official Wang Qifu, speaking by a massive monument to Jiao in the bustling county seat.

After the president visited, “doing poorly wouldn’t do,” Wang said.

However, life in Xi’s dream village is surrounded by another reality.

While everyone agrees Lankao has changed enormously since Xi’s visits in March and May 2014, those on Zhangzhuang’s outskirts complain the gains have not been equitable.

The backs of houses along the road to the village have been whitewashed to give the appearance of wealth, but on the other side, narrow, muddy streets run past homes with broken windows and crumbling bricks.

“We haven’t seen any changes here,” said one elderly woman, a farmer who declined to give her name. “The people with connections to the village government have all shaken off poverty. Those without connections haven’t.”

Many residents still feel poor, complaining there is little money in farming and earning more means moving to urban areas.

To tackle the problem, the county has encouraged cooperatives to grow more profitable crops such as melons, established industrial parks and also dedicated several large memorials to Jiao — and its own Xi-fueled success — hoping “red tourism” would create much-needed jobs.

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