So near, and yet so far from Guangdong's boom

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 January, 2008, 12:00am

Lai Rihong , a motorcycle-taxi driver in one of the poorest parts of Guangdong, describes his lot as 'possibly the worst life in the world'.

Each day Mr Lai, 46, picks up passengers on the roads between the towns of Dengta and Banjiang in Heyuan , one of the least developed areas in the province.

The two towns lie near the Xinfengjiang Reservoir, a key source for the Dongjiang - from which people in Hong Kong receive their drinking water - and efforts to preserve water quality since 1958 have curbed development in the area.

Even though it is only about 200km from Shenzhen, Heyuan has missed out on the overseas-investment boom in the 30 years since the launch of economic reforms. Shenzhen's per capita gross domestic product in 2006 was 69,450 yuan, 7.3 times Heyuan's 9,495 yuan.

Mr Lai has to support his family of three on an average annual income of about 10,000 yuan.

They are fortunate to live in an apartment built 10 years ago when he was running his own meat-transport business but can only scrape by because of the cost of treating his 20-year-old son's osteoporosis. The illness has lasted more than five years and the cost of treatment has put the family 80,000 yuan into debt.

Without a pension or medical insurance, Mr Lai wonders whether he will ever escape his situation.

'I don't believe we can improve our lives if no one invests in the town to provide us with job opportunities,' he said.

Banjiang native Yang Lizhen , 33, said people living near the Xinfengjiang Reservoir understood it was their lot to sacrifice the chance of forging better lives. The only industry that is allowed to be exploited in the area is agriculture, because it does not pollute the drinking water of millions of people.

Asked how downstream cities such as Guangzhou, Dongguan and Shenzhen could compensate them, Ms Yang said she wondered if there was any possibility that businesses could invest in farms in her hometown to provide them with the opportunity to make money.

A mother of three, she tends a 20 square metre vegetable field right beside the reservoir and says she looks 10 years older than her real age.

Ms Yang said she and her husband, who made 12,000 yuan a year working at a Heyuan electronics factory, had worked in Shenzhen and Dongguan before but had to return home because elderly and young relatives needed to be taken care of.

'Some other villagers who cannot find jobs in town are even worse off than us,' Ms Yang said.

'To be frank, my only hope is that all my children can leave this poor village in the future by becoming educated people,' she said.

Researchers and officials say Guangdong is still facing the problem of widening gaps in development between regions and growing income disparities.

Cheng Jiansan , an economist with the Guangdong Academy of Social Sciences, said the widening gap between rich and poor was the most critical issue in the province's future development.

But although the provincial government was aware of the issue, reducing the wealth gap was not yet a priority.

He said most of the province's poor lived in distant corners such as Shaoguan , Meizhou , Heyuan, and Jianyang , and that he was shocked by the reality of the wealth gap in Heyuan when he first visited the villages there.

'I had never thought that within less than 200km [of Shenzhen] lives could be so different,' he said.

According to GDP figures, Guangdong has surpassed Singapore and Hong Kong in the past 10 years and provincial governor Huang Huahua says it topped Taiwan last year. But it also has more than 3.31 million people living below the poverty line in 3,409 poor rural villages.

Heyuan Policy Research Centre vice-director Ling Xiaozhun said Guangdong had been working on narrowing the wealth gap for years. One proposal made in 2003 was to urge Shenzhen and Dongguan to set up industrial transfer zones in Heyuan and other underdeveloped areas.

But he admitted it was a big challenge for the province.

Guangdong announced on Monday that it would help 300,000 poor peasants move from mud-brick houses each year and build new homes for all peasants living in such houses within eight years.