Hubei backwater struggles to meet Li Keqiang's order to grow
Cadres at wits' end as they battle poor soil, huge needs, inertia and failed efforts to raise incomes
The new cement road leading from Longfeng, a remote township in the mountains of southwestern Hubei , to the villages of Longma and Qingbao has never been so busy.
Residents of the area say officials, academics and reporters have often been spotted on the road in the past few months after the local government made it a key area for poverty alleviation after a visit by then vice-premier Li Keqiang to the Enshi autonomous prefecture in late December.
Li, who had visited the area five years ago, left dissatisfied with the pace of change and ordered the local authorities to urbanise the area and move poor people from the depths of the Wuling Mountains.
Li, who became premier in March, has identified urbanisation as the long-term growth engine for the mainland's economy and a way to improve people's lives.
Enshi county, which governs Longfeng, has come up with an ambitious plan in response to Li's visit. It includes tripling the town's average per capita income by 2017 and raising the percentage of urban dwellers from the current 17 per cent to 70 per cent.
Li said he would return in five years to monitor the progress.
However, grass-roots cadres wonder how they can meet those goals, given that there is hardly any industry in the area now and agricultural production is barely enough to feed the locals.
Farmers worry about relocation costs and how they will make a living after losing their farmland.
The town has a population of 60,000, of whom all but 10,000 are farmers. In the past decade it has tried promoting the cultivation of various crops and the raising of different animals in an attempt to lift farmers out of poverty, but Huang Xianrong , the head of Longma's village committee, said that "after all these years … there's no result because conditions in this place are really restrictive".
Longfeng's deputy mayor Ge Hongwu , who is also director of the town government's new "comprehensive poverty alleviation and reform pilot project office", said local farmers earned an average of about 4,100 yuan (HK$5,120) last year, just 56 per cent of the national average for farmers.
More than 40 per cent of residents live below the national poverty line of 2,300 yuan and only 26 per cent have pensions, a report by the township government shows.
Ge said that while his office had drafted the poverty alleviation plan, it had no idea how much money it would cost. The strategy was a national one and the provincial government would lead its implementation, Ge said, implying that the funding would come from higher-level governments.
The report said central government departments had established a co-ordination team to execute the project, and the provincial finance department has said it will give the pilot project its full support. The Agricultural Development Bank of China's Hubei branch planned to provide a three billion yuan loan to support urbanisation, and carmaker Geely Group had visited Longma village twice to invest in public utilities.
The planned projects include the development of scenic spots in Longma and Qingbao to highlight the cultures of the local Miao and Tujia ethnic minorities, a tobacco processing centre and a 10 million cubic metre reservoir.
Ge said that while higher-level finance departments supported the plan, Longfeng would have to stand on its own one day and finding a sustainable source of income for its people was the "biggest headache" for local cadres.
The plan envisions the growing and processing of tea and tobacco as key industries. Huang said all farmland below an altitude of 800 metres would be used to grow tea, while higher land would be used to grow tobacco.
However, it would be hard to find a major tea processor willing to build processing plants to turn the raw leaves into a more valuable commodity, he said. "Without this, it's just hurting the farmers, no matter how many hectares of tea we grow," Huang said.
Tea bushes currently covered about a fifth of Longma's farmland, with corn and potatoes accounting for the bulk of agricultural production, he added.
Farmers say they are not enthusiastic about growing tea because the bushes take three years to become productive - too long a wait for the poor locals.
The area's limited arable land and worsening soil quality are also hampering agricultural development. The township government's report says the average land holding in Longfeng is about 600 square metres, a third below the national average.
Some of that farmland is suffering serious stony desertification and soil erosion and some of it has become too acidic. Ge said the town's agricultural service centre planned to treat about 260 hectares of overly acidic soil.
Urbanisation would also require a big improvement in the area's infrastructure. Huang said it was very inconvenient for children in Longma to go to school, while the sole hospital offered very limited services. Work is also needed on the drainage system, street lamps and waste treatment. "These problems can't be solved in a short period," the village committee head said.
Deputy mayor Ge said he was expecting a tough time persuading elderly residents to leave their homes. Most of the residents aged above 50 would be unwilling to leave the places where they had grown up, but it would be "unrealistic" to spend millions of yuan to build roads serving only a few people in remote mountain areas, he said.
The government started building homes for the poorest people in remote mountain areas in 2003 but progress has been slow, with only about 260 households benefiting as of last year.
In the past, a village could only get 100,000 to 200,000 yuan for a poverty alleviation scheme, which was only enough to aid a few families, Ge said.
Funding per village had now grown to between one and two million yuan, but it was better to use that funding to boost agriculture and build infrastructure than to relocate people, he said.
Gong Yanqiang , 75, said life would still be hard even if they moved to the town because they would have no farmland.
With his daughter having her own family in another province and his son working in Wenzhou , Gong said he and his 61-year-old wife had lived by themselves for years in a dilapidated wooden house in Longma.
"It's meaningless to build a new home if my son is not coming back," he said.
Qingbao villager Long Yongquan said none of his neighbours had been lucky enough to receive government support to move to more convenient places.
While working his hillside fields beside the road in recent months he had seen people coming and going to "research our place", but he was not sure what would happen.
"No one from the government has asked us what we think," Long said. "We don't' know anything so far."