Poverty in China

Rural exodus leaves a shrinking Chinese village full of ageing poor, and only three children

A mountainous farming region in one of China’s poorest provinces feels the drain as young parents migrate to the cities, and those left behind struggle

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 April, 2018, 6:00pm
UPDATED : Friday, 20 April, 2018, 8:48am

In Lumacha village, tucked away in the mountainous regions of China’s northwestern Gansu province, a lone farmer toils silently in the fields, preparing the land for the year’s crop of wheat.

At this time of the afternoon several years ago, he might have heard the patter of tiny feet and the giggles of children as they ran about playing tag. But now, there’s hardly a child in sight.

The vast silence stretches all the way from the fields to the line of houses nearby, a stark reminder that the village is practically devoid of youth – almost everyone in the village is aged 40 and over. Most of the village’s younger adults have moved to the cities in search of job opportunities that pay better than farming, often taking their children with them.

“In the past, when it gets warmer after the winter, there would be many children running about and playing, shouting, having fun,” said Feng Ping, headmaster of Lumacha’s primary school.

“But nowadays, even when it’s the school holidays you hardly see a child anywhere. Not during the summer holidays, not during the winter holidays,” he said. “The children who go to the cities to study don’t come back.”

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Gansu is one of China’s most impoverished provinces. Official figures show that its gross domestic product per capita in 2017 was just US$4,647 – about a quarter of the US$20,356 in Beijing and half the national average of US$9,311.

China has ambitious plans to alleviate poverty in rural regions like Gansu. In 2015, President Xi Jinping vowed to wipe out poverty, and the government aims to have no one living below the poverty line by 2020, which is Xi’s goal for achieving a “moderately prosperous society”.

The government said in March that its efforts over the past five years have lifted about 68.5 million people out of poverty. But one of its ways of solving the problem is to encourage an exodus of rural residents to urban areas. In 2014, it announced an urbanisation plan to move 250 million people from rural areas to cities by 2026.

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This migration means that millions of young people have left villages like Lumacha, leaving parents and grandparents behind.

“There is no [adult] left that is under 40,” said headmaster Feng.

At Lumacha’s primary school, just three pupils are enrolled – Shi Zhengang, Chang Wenxuan and Du Yongsheng, all aged 10. The boys come from poorer families that often struggle to make ends meet. Their parents can only afford to send them to the village school, rather than larger ones in more centralised areas. The closest city to Lumacha is Dingxi, which is an hour and a half’s drive away.

Every day, the three boys trek for over an hour across a deep valley to get to school, as they have done for the past four years.

“A decade ago, there were over 300 pupils,” said Feng, who runs the school with two other instructors who teach mathematics and Chinese.

“We had six grades, in six different classrooms. Now there is only one class.” 

The primary school is one of 1,900 schools in Gansu with fewer than 10 pupils, according to local media reports, a direct result of the rural exodus as young parents take their children with them to the cities.

Along with instruction in core subjects, the three boys receive daily lessons via live-streamed classes held on CCTalk, an educational platform by Shanghai-based Hujiang EdTech. The online instructors teach subjects like music and art, and the classes are streamed in real time to multiple schools around the mountainous region. Headmaster Feng also uses an online teaching platform developed in Gansu to teach the boys English, even though he admits that it is a struggle as he does not have a good grasp of the language.

Feng said the online courses, an initiative spearheaded by Hujiang and supported by the local government, had helped the area’s rural schools maximise the few teaching resources they had for more specialised subjects.

He said it was difficult to teach these subjects in the past, as both Feng and his colleagues had no background in the arts. But with the online courses, pupils receive a more well-rounded education, and have become more confident speaking Mandarin as they get used to interacting with their online teachers in the language.

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“The three of them used to only speak in dialect in school, as that’s what is spoken at home,” Feng said. Being able to speak Mandarin confidently does not just help the children do better in school – it is also a necessity if they wish to one day leave the village for better opportunities in the city.

But Feng worries that once the boys graduate, the school – the only one in Lumacha – will be closed. He is nostalgic, having once been a pupil there himself.

“I think it’s good for each village to have its own school. Each school can inherit and represent the village’s culture,” he said. “For children to go to school in the village they were born in helps to cultivate a sense of belonging, of where their roots are. This isn’t something they can experience if they move to go to school in a city.” 

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Since 2000, the government has shut down three-quarters of all rural schools, according to a report by The Economist. That amounts to more than 300,000 schools.

For Lumacha, the dwindling number of children and the risk of having its only school closed reflect the village’s bigger problem – those left behind are often aged, with many becoming physically unable to do farm work. The able-bodied in their 40s and 50s toil to make ends meet, but their efforts can sometimes be foiled by the harsh and unforgiving weather.

Lumacha resident Shi Laijun would know. Last year, he barely made any money as a wheat farmer.

Right before the harvest season, an unexpected hailstorm hit Lumacha. In just a day, the hail battered his annual crop, leaving him with nothing to sell for the rest of the year.

“We didn’t harvest anything,” said Shi, 43, who is the breadwinner for his family. “The farmers here, none of us harvested a thing.”

To make ends meet, Shi took jobs as a labourer to support his wife and child, as well as his ageing father, Shi Jigong, who is 81 and has chronic gastroenteritis.

The family of four live in a sparse house with simple brick and concrete walls, decorated with drawings done by his son, Shi Zhengang, one of the pupils at the village school. Pillows and blankets are stacked on a table pushed against the wall, and at night the four share a traditional brick bed, or kang, constructed in a corner of the room. The kang also doubles as an eating area for the family.

On the other side is where Shi’s wife cooks their meals over a wood-burning stove. Potatoes and bread are staples, along with simple stir-fried vegetables. Meat is a luxury enjoyed only on special occasions.

For 71-year-old Xiao Changlin, another farmer in Lumacha village, agriculture is his only option. His children have moved to the city of Lanzhou, Gansu’s provincial capital, to work, and he stayed behind with his ailing wife. For 18 days in a row last year, Xiao took his wife to see the doctor in a nearby town, racking up medical expenses he could barely afford.

But despite Feng’s despair at the lack of children in the village, he acknowledged that those leaving to gain a better education in the cities had a shot at a better future.

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“In the past, many kids studied hard in school and got into colleges, and now their lives are pretty good,” Feng said. “Education is still the most important thing for rural children.”

But for Chang’s mother, Gao Jinxia, who labours as a potato farmer, all she hopes is for her son to lead a better life once he finishes his education.

“I hope that he can work in the city when he grows up, and leave the countryside,” she said, grinning widely at the thought.

Feng’s three pupils may come from a humble background, but they clearly know that bigger and better things lay outside their mountain village.

When the boys were asked about their dreams for the future, Chang, the smallest of the three who sports a cheeky smile and sparkly personality, quickly exclaimed that he wanted to become an astronaut.

“I want to fly to space,” he said. “And explore the universe!”

He said he wanted to move to the bustling coastal city of Shanghai to pursue this dream. Last year, he said, he visited Shanghai on an educational trip sponsored by Hujiang EdTech, and got the chance to experience travel on a high-speed train and see the city’s iconic Oriental Pearl Tower with his own eyes.

“I want to work hard and become rich,” he said. “Only then can I buy big houses for my parents and myself. ”