Jobless sponsored to move to other areas

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 June, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 June, 2008, 12:00am

Gansu migrant Ma Dingfang has reason to celebrate.

Three years of early starts, late finishes and general frugality by the 46-year-old former farmer and Muslim have paid off with a healthy bank balance of 30,000 yuan (HK$34,100), a total that was inconceivable before he came to Beijing four years ago.

Mr Ma has squeezed out the savings by operating a thriving food stand at a vegetable marketplace in suburban Tongzhou where customers have developed a taste for his long, thin, hand-pulled noodles.

'I can come down and take a breath now with these savings,' Mr Ma said as he ladled noodles into a row of bowls.

His prices - 3.50 yuan per bowl - are competitive enough to attract vegetable traders from the market and migrant labourers from three nearby construction sites.

'The money is for my son's college tuition. He is doing very well at school and will sit the national college entrance exam next year.'

When he first came to the capital, Mr Ma worked at one of the construction sites as a brick porter, but he found that the caterers, at 8 yuan, were charging too much, and most of his workmates agreed. So he started the food stand, and it turned out to be a pretty good business.

Two months after the noodle stand started, Mr Ma's wife came from their home village in Huining county in eastern Gansu to be with him, bringing their 11-year-old daughter, who studies at a primary school for migrant families.

Mr Ma's success in getting ahead is something the Gansu government earnestly hopes the vast majority of farmers in the province can replicate.

Of the 26.17 million people in Gansu by the end of last year, nearly 70 per cent, or 17.9 million, were farmers, of whom 2.78 million were below the poverty line, earning somewhere between 786 and 1,067 yuan per capita per year.

In addition, 1.26 million people in Gansu were classified as living in extreme poverty, trying to make ends meet every day with a disposable income of less than 785 yuan a year.

'A large rural population, dwindling arable land due to desertification and salinisation, plus the threadbare industrial structure mean the economy in Gansu is quite underdeveloped,' said Nie Hualin , a Lanzhou University professor with a research focus on the region's economics.

Most large and medium-sized enterprises in Gansu are state-owned, and some were established more than half a century ago. Professor Nie said the manufacturing technology used in the province's factories was outdated and productivity was low because of high input costs and low-tech output.

Of the 31 provinces and municipalities in China, Gansu ranked only above Ningxia , Qinghai and Tibet - China's traditionally underdeveloped provinces - with a gross domestic product of 269.92 billion yuan last year, less than 9 per cent of that of national GDP leader Guangdong.

Gansu authorities have decided that one way of helping their people rise out of poverty is to encourage unemployed labourers to move to more developed provinces in search of work.

The Gansu Economic Daily reported that this year the province had sponsored 4.1 million jobless farmers and urban residents to move to more developed areas, mostly to coastal provinces, from where they sent back 23 billion yuan each year.

But a considerable proportion of these migrant workers trying to carve their own niche in big cities have not been as lucky as Mr Ma. Most of them return home after a few months after either failing to find jobs because of a lack of skills or not being able to come to terms with life on the metropolitan margins.

Mr Ma has tried twice in the past year to persuade his wife's 38-year-old brother to stay in Beijing to seek a better future.

But each time he went home after fewer than two weeks, complaining that he could not bear the discriminatory and contemptuous air of residents.

Gansu's economic bright spot is its abundant tourism resources, which provide a steady supply of revenue for local coffers.

The most famous scenic spots in the province include desolate and awesome ancient castles and passes along the Silk Road, which snakes from the Shaanxi provincial capital Xian westwards across the Gobi. The Unesco-listed Mogao Grottoes at Dunhuang in Gansu's west are not to be missed.

But tourism is still a meagre contributor to the local economy, at 11.5 billion yuan last year, or 4.3 per cent of the local GDP.

The provincial government has pinned its hopes of invigorating the local economy on boosting its industrial capacity.

'Improving the local economy through industrialisation is ... the unavoidable road for pushing Gansu on to the fast track of economic growth,' Gansu Governor Xu Shousheng said.

For Mr Ma, all this appears too distant and detached from his concerns.

'My biggest dream is for my son to enter a university in Beijing, and then the whole family can move to Beijing and not go back to Gansu again,' he said. 'A hometown is a place where you can make a better life, isn't it?'

Mr Ma said that apart from renting out his small plot of land to neighbours in exchange for 150kg of grain a year, he had no links with his home village.

'The mosques here are big, people in Beijing are nice to us, and they like the flavour of the noodles I cook, so I will stay,' he said.

Poor showing

Of the 26.17 million people in Gansu by the end of last year

The proportion of farmers was 17.9 million or: 70%

of whom the number living below the poverty line was: 2.78m