Villager's wretched life reveals dark side of Guangdong 'miracle'

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 January, 2011, 12:00am

Steven Li, 19, wears Armani and Louis Vuitton from head to toe and used to pick up his English tutor in Guangzhou in a different car each lesson. His SUVs ranged from a Toyota Highlander to a Range Rover, and other vehicles included a Lexus SC430 and an Infiniti.

When he recently moved to the United States to study English, he bought himself two new toys right after landing in Boston: the latest iPhone 4 and a Porsche 911, both for cash.

Li is not a multimillionaire himself but his father is a rich businessmen in Guangdong, the richest province on the mainland. Many others like him also lead extravagant lifestyles, as evidenced by the queues outside the luxury brand boutiques next to the Baiyun Hotel.

Less than 500 kilometres away, on the Leizhou Peninsula in far southwestern Guangdong, where 47-year-old Lai Xuegui lives a life of abject poverty, the mainland's wealth gap is thrown into stark relief.

She lives in a village 50 kilometres from the city of Leizhou , where people speak the Li dialect. It is a much neglected area, with development of western Guangdong having long lagged behind Pearl River Delta centres such as Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Zhuhai .

Guangzhou recently held the 16th Asian Games, at a cost of 122.6 billion yuan (HK$144.6 billion). Lai and her three sons in Tiandun village have never heard of the Games and do not understand why they were held.

It is a long, winding journey on dusty, bumpy roads to Tiandun, with local triads blocking key entrances, demanding tolls.

The neighbouring village of Dongtang, which has jurisdiction over a dozen villages including Tiandun, oversees 3,957 people in 908 households. Fifty-one per cent of them live below the poverty line of US$1.25 a day set by the World Bank in 2005. That is not far off the national poverty rate of 53 per cent 30 years ago. On a typical afternoon, Lai peels sweet potatoes to feed her four chickens and 13 ducks. It is the same food she and her malnourished sons eat throughout the day. They live in a 500 sq ft brick hut with a roof made of weed topped with a plastic cover. It is not enough to stop rainwater seeping in.

The house is divided into three rooms, with sand and mud flooring. It has no toilet or shower facilities.

Lai lives in one room with her eldest son, who suffers from severe mental retardation. In the other rooms are her second son and her brother-in-law, who also suffer from mental retardation.

Her husband died from cancer in 2005, leaving Lai widowed with five children to raise and a brother-in-law to care for. She cried herself half-blind.

Her youngest son, 19-year-old Cai Wenxing, is now in Year 9 at school. He refuses to sleep under the same roof as his mother and brothers and is shy and grumpy, often complaining about the lack of pocket money to buy food at school.

Wenxing, like his brothers, is skinny and less than 1.6 metres tall. But he is luckier because at least he can get an education. His brothers Cai Wenlong, 26, and Cai Wenjiao, 24, have never been to school. They spend their days watching people and chickens pass by.

Wenlong doesn't have an identity card and is not listed in the family's household registration. Lai has been to the local police station a few times to try to organise an ID for him but said she could not continue the process because she could not afford the transport. Lai is also trying to get a disability allowance for Wenjiao, but the family has yet to hear back from the local government after several tries.

'I'm really worried about Wenlong and Wenjiao. What's going to happen to them when I pass away?' she said.

The family's food comes from 650 square metres of sweet potatoes. Cash comes from two daughters, 20 and 16, who quit primary school to do odd jobs in Shenzhen. They send a few hundred yuan home every one or two months to sustain the family. Rice and meat are only put on the table when relatives pay visits during major festivals.

In November 2009, Lai asked for financial assistance, as set out in the national poverty-alleviation policy, but said the town government secretary told her: 'Even we are short of money, what are you doing here asking for cash?'

Xinhua reported last week that Guangdong had allocated 3.7 billion yuan for poverty alleviation and each village could get an average of 1.1 million yuan in funding to help the poor.

It also said that the income of poor families in Guangdong could increase by 18.5 per cent by next year, with more than 80 per cent of poor families gradually emerging from poverty.

Lai is unsure how her life fits with the official picture, but says 'all the government's money has been given to the rich, we poor people get nothing.

'The central government's policies are good, it's just that the local government won't implement them.'