Guangdong finds it hard to shake off poverty

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 August, 2011, 12:00am


President Hu Jintao's five-day tour to Guangdong that ended on Monday was an endorsement of the development of the coastal province, the local government said.

During the trip, Hu visited an environment-friendly industrial park, information technology firm, car plant, and community facilities and budget housing for the poor. He also presided over the World University Games in Shenzhen.

The Guangdong authorities said they would accelerate a transformation of the province from its reliance on labour-intensive industries to technology-centred development. They would also strive to make it a vanguard of 'social harmony'.

It is not an easy feat.

Guangdong takes pride in its bustling Pearl River Delta megalopolis, factory hubs and transport network - the mainland's densest - while contributing a whopping 4.5 trillion yuan (HK$5.5 trillion) last year to gross domestic product.

And yet, in the southwestern corner of the province, a school in Leizhou city does not have even one toilet for its 300 students. At the other end of Guangdong, southwest of Fujian, peasants do not have enough farmland. In the north, mountains keep local communities isolated from the outside world.

These examples are just a fact of life in the two-tracked economy of Guangdong.

Official statistics show per capita GDP in northern, eastern and western Guangdong in 2009 was 17,000 yuan to 18,000 yuan - roughly a third of the Pearl River Delta's 67,000 yuan. Guangdong's wealth gap is said to be wider than those of other coastal provinces, such as Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Shandong .

Lu Daxiang, a delegate to the Guangdong committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, said urban disposable income growth between 2006 and 2010 was slower than in the other rich cities or provinces, including Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin. Yet, Guangdong experienced the fastest growth in GDP and tax revenue.

Guangdong party chief Wang Yang visited the poorer districts in December 2007, after which he said he was 'ashamed to find a poor Guangdong hiding behind a rich facade'.

Narrowing the wealth gap is the focus of the 'Happy Guangdong' campaign Wang launched early this year as the province seeks to concentrate on easing poverty rather than raising GDP over the next five years.

Wang declared a three-year 'war on poverty' in March last year that local media called the most ambitious scheme of its kind on the mainland. The outspoken Southern Weekend newspaper said more than 11,000 officials were sent to 3,409 villages in poor areas for up to three years on a mission to drive poverty from Guangdong. Those villages make up 16 per cent of the province's total. More than 40 per cent of their residents earn below 1,500 yuan a year.

The officials will help devise the most suitable form of development for each community. Officials who do the best in easing poverty will have the highest chances of promotion.

Professor Cheng Jiansan of the Guangdong Academy of Social Sciences praised the effort for its 'refined goals' and political determination, but said poverty would not disappear in the next 30 years.

'Happy Guangdong is just a political assignment handed down by Beijing, but this campaign only magnifies the severity of Guangdong's poverty problem,' he said.

Besides those living in abject poverty, Cheng said, Guangdong had a high number of low-income earners living on the brink of poverty. Some 40 million people - about 40 per cent of the provincial population - earned less than the mainland urban average standard of about 1,750 yuan per month, 'which is already quite low'.

'This is something we ought to be ashamed of,' he said.

The provincial authorities paid hefty taxes to the central government but had little bargaining power to lower its contribution so funds could be used to help the poor, he said.

Guangdong suffered the mainland's greatest regional development gap, Cheng added. 'The degree of developmental imbalance is still extremely severe. In the past two to three decades, more than 20 million young Guangdong men and women have flocked to the Pearl River Delta to seek a living and contributed to its miraculous growth. But [that migration] has also delayed development for remote regions of Guangdong.'

He said the main obstacle was a lack of governance reforms. 'The key problem lies with the country's financial and administrative structure. Without major reform, it's impossible to nip poverty in the bud.'


Guangdong's population, according to the census last year

- Some 40 million earn below the urban average of 1,750 yuan per month