Factories ease plight of poorest - at a price

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

Rice farmer Zhang Huanan believes his best chance of escaping a life of poverty is a glass factory rising from former farmland near his home.

The factory, run by a company from Fujian, will open this autumn, offering many jobs. It's one of hundreds of industrial projects moving into Heyuan, one of the poorest cities in the mainland's wealthiest province.

Some scholars say there are two Guangdongs: one rich and the other poor. Zhang, 43, lives in Lankou township's Xiushui village, roughly 200 kilometres northeast of Shenzhen but decades behind in terms of economic development.

He says the factory, a 10-minute motorcycle ride from his home, is his last chance to turn his fortunes around.

After more than three decades of rapid economic growth, the mainland is suffering from a yawning wealth gap that is even evident in rich coastal provinces like Guangdong.

Official statistics say the per capita gross domestic product in northern, eastern and western Guangdong in 2009 was between 17,000 and 18,000 yuan (HK$19,950 and HK$21,120) - about a quarter of the Pearl River Delta's 67,000 yuan. During an inspection of Heyuan early last year, provincial party boss Wang Yang said it was a shame that Guangdong had such a huge wealth gap - bigger than in other coastal provinces such as Jiangsu , Zhejiang and Shandong . He said it had to be narrowed so that the province could shed the shame of being home to the mainland's richest region as well as some of its poorest ones.

Pointing at several dozen two to three-storey buildings around his old brick house, Zhang said his family was the poorest in the village because all his neighbours had family members working in factories in Heyuan or Pearl River Delta cities such as Huizhou , Dongguan and Shenzhen.

'The only way for us to make a better living is to work in the factories outside the village,' he said.

But Zhang has to stay close to home to take care of his disabled wife and cannot apply for jobs so far away.

He tends 1,300 square metres of rice paddy, with most of the crop going to feed his family of five, including three daughters aged 10, 13, and 16.

It is not easy for him to afford the 2,000 yuan it costs for his girls' schooling every year. He makes a little money selling eggs and chickens and borrows more from relatives who live and work in Heyuan.

To protect the environment upstream of the Dong River, Hong Kong's major water source, factories were prohibited in Heyuan for years. Nowadays, manufacturers are leaving the PRD and heading to such unexploited areas.

'This may be the last chance in my life [to earn some money],' Zhang said, looking at the farmland that will soon be home to workshops and assembly lines.

However, some local activists and scholars consider the project the most severe threat to the environment of the town and the river running through it.

Professor Cheng Jiansan, from the Guangdong government's Academy of Social Sciences, says it's a critical time for the mainland's poorest areas because they must choose the right direction for their future.

He said, for example, that there were two ways Heyuan could develop itself. The first was to attract more factories and make industry its main engine of economic growth; the second was to focus on agriculture and tourism - with less pollution.

Cheng said he and some of his colleagues favoured the second option but worried that local officials might prefer the first. 'Obviously that would help create more revenue in the short term, but in the long run low-end manufacturing will suffer from depressed prospects.'

He also suggested the provincial government increase financial aid to poor areas, saying too little had been spent in the past. 'Guangdong's experience of dealing with the wealth gap will be an example to the whole country,' he said. 'And we need a big strategy and more aid to achieve that.

'If Guangdong does not make and carry out new plans as soon as possible, it might fail to solve the problem in the coming decade and that will really be a source of shame.'

Heyuan vice-mayor Wen Wenfei is unapologetic about the city's 'industry first' strategy, established late last century, saying that the city had sacrificed too much in the past 20 years because the provincial government had wanted to protect the environment.

'The good environment we have maintained for the whole area has come at the cost of our development,' Wen said, adding that there was no excuse to let Heyuan people remain poor any longer.

According to an official report, Heyuan has attracted nearly 700 new industrial projects in the past few years and more than 82 billion yuan in investment - figures never before seen.

To tackle the waste generated by the new factories, Heyuan's environmental protection watchdog says it will build sewage treatment plants in each of its five townships.

It also says that factories will only be allowed to operate in industrial zones with sewage plants, ensuring that all pollution can be handled effectively.

But He Mingliang , director of Heyuan's Environmental Protection Bureau, admitted that the sewage treatment plant in Lankou would not be finished this year.

Asked how the glass factory would be allowed to open before waste treatment facilities were established, he said the factory was approved by the Ministry of Environmental Protection and declined to give further details.

Zhang understands it is an awkward trade-off - with better livelihoods sometimes accompanied by the threat of worse pollution.

'So I have another hope for my daughters,' he said. 'I hope that one day they can get into colleges, go to big cities and leave their hometown with a few opportunities.'

The colour of money

Heyuan has attracted nearly 700 industrial projects in the past few years and investment, in yuan, of more than: 82b yuan