Chinese parliamentary sessions 2014

Six years on, farmer who received famed visit by Li Keqiang still living in debt and poverty

Two visits by Premier Li Keqiang have done little to ease plight of pig farmer, highlighting government's struggle to improve rural livelihoods

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 February, 2014, 4:35pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 February, 2014, 4:46am

He has been visited by top government officials like Premier Li Keqiang and promised a better future than his hardscrabble life, but all of the attention has done little to improve the life of Qingbao farmer Fu Maoyan.

In fact, he said, he faces many of the same problems.

The South China Morning Post spoke to Fu after last year's National People Congress, as his village, deep in the Wulin Mountains, in Hubei's Enshi county, had received several high-profile government visits. Business still seemed slow when the paper visited him in the run-up to this year's congress.

The 39-year-old was loading river sand into his small truck in front of a cluster of timber-framed brick houses on a Saturday morning, as a few neighbours went about their business.

With small parcels of farmland suitable only for growing potatoes and corn, residents do not have busy harvest seasons all year round, Fu said. "Few of us have a specific skill," he said. "And that's the problem."

Fu's experience helps illustrate the painfully slow pace of progress in rural areas, despite the government officials' vows to put farmers' welfare and rural development at the top of their agenda. Things are especially bad in the western regions and mountainous areas.

Except for two newly built pigsties - which cost Fu and his wife 50,000 yuan (HK$63,000) last year - nothing seemed to have changed over the past year for the farmer and the sparse constellation of houses in the area that make up the community.

Fu is still labouring over the issue of how to finance the debt incurred in the construction of their pig farm, where they raise 140 pigs - up from 80 a year ago. The couple borrowed money from relatives. "We just made ends meet last year," Fu said.

Following the interest in Fu's plight and that of farmers nationwide, banks in the county started offering agricultural loans of up to 30,000 yuan (HK$38,000). But as early as last year, Fu had complained that a person had to secure guarantees from officials they might know well enough, to secure larger amounts.

"Even the small agricultural loan project has been cancelled," he said. "Now I can only borrow money from relatives."

Official data indicated an annual income of about 8,900 yuan for rural residents last year, one-third that of urban dwellers. The urban-rural income gap has persisted at a ratio of 3:1 since 2001.

The local governments have paid special attention to Fu because of Li two visits to the homestead before in 2008 and 2012 he became premier. After Li's first visit, Fu received a "youth entrepreneur award" worth 500 yuan from the township for his attempt to cultivate snails. That project ended in failure.

Their gestures of goodwill continue to this day. A week before Lunar New Year's Eve, officials from the provincial and county governments paid Fu a visit and gave him a cash gift of 1,000 yuan.

"I didn't want to accept it at all because I thought there were other people who were much more in need of this money," he said. "What I want is not a small piece of cake, but something for me to be able to make my own cake bigger."

But Fu chose not to refuse the gift in the end, so as not to "embarrass the leaders".

Even the small loan project has been cancelled. I can only borrow from relatives
Fu Maoyan, Pig farmer

In the time since Li's visits, Fu has been disappointed in the stagnant rural financing system.

Ge Hongwu, deputy mayor of Longfeng township, which oversees Qingbao, admits that more financial institutions, such as the China Post and Savings Bank, used to serve grass-roots population, but they have withdrawn.

"I guess it's because turnover was small and it was not lucrative for them to stay here," Ge said.

In 2012, local farmers in Longfeng township earned an average of about 4,100 yuan, which was just 56 per cent of the national average, according to a government report. Only 26 per cent of them had pensions, it said. Ge said data for last year was not yet released.

Nevertheless, Fu's wife, Yang Fang, said they were lucky to have better-off relatives in the city. Others have to subsist on near-barren fields or move to the cities.

Fu is a former migrant worker himself. He returned home in 2011 when his parents approached their 80s and his second child was born.

There may be one bright spot for Fu's family: relocating to downtown Longfeng, designated as the site of a national poverty-alleviation pilot project spurred by Li's visit in December 2012.

Dissatisfied by the lack of changes in the conditions of rural dwellers between his 2008 and 2012 visits, the premier ordered the local government to urbanise Longfeng.

Poor residents were moved out of Wuling and into the township, where they were expected to live closer to each other, and have easier access to infrastructure and public facilities.

In response to Li's orders, the Enshi government in Hubei framed an ambitious plan to relocate at least 6,000 people living under the poverty line each year starting from last year. The full relocation was slated for completion by 2017.

According to an Enshi television report, some 400 households from about 7,800 poverty-stricken households in Longfeng were relocated last year.

The plan also aims to raise per capita incomes and raising the local urbanisation rate to 70 per cent from the current 17 per cent by 2017. The premier said he would come back to check on improvements in five years.

Fu said he would be happy to move into town, about 10 kilometres away, if the government had a good plan and the cost of moving was within his means.

"My elder son's school - the only one in the town - is there. And my little boy is also approaching kindergarten age," he said. "It would be really convenient for the children's schooling if we could move to town."

Fu could commute between the town and his pig farm in Qingdao if business is good. If not, he could sell the pig farm they sacrificed so much for and find a job in town.