The forgotten farm families in Beijing’s anti-poverty campaign: how China’s rural poor fall through the cracks
A single mother who was denied government aid in northwestern China rejected her neighbours’ idea that she sell her daughters: ‘I will carry on, no matter how hard life is’
In a hamlet in China’s poverty-stricken northwestern region of Ningxia, Liu Zhuanqin is struggling to raise her five young daughters.
A state of affairs that was already extremely challenging grew dire early this year when her husband – who had been jobless for eight years after breaking a leg in a road accident – died from heart disease.
Now the 36-year-old widow must figure out how to bring up her girls, who range in age from five to 13, on the 80 yuan (US$12) a day she earns doing manual labour on farms and construction sites in the village of Sanshanjing in Tongxin county.
Some neighbours, trying to be helpful, suggested she sell her daughters. But Liu wants no part of that idea.
“I definitely won’t do that,” she told the South China Morning Post in an interview.
“I will carry on raising them, no matter how hard life is. But how dearly I hope that someone can give me a hand.”
Despite Beijing’s repeated assurances that it is tackling rural poverty, poor farmers like Liu are falling through the cracks.
A decade ago, she and her husband moved 10km (six miles) from their farm in the mountains to Sanshanjing, under a government relocation drive that sought to give farmers from remote areas the benefit of living in a friendlier environment with convenient transport links.
Authorities have been implementing the project, which is part of the government’s poverty relief initiatives, for about two decades.
Liu’s family still owns parcels of land in the mountains, but they are so far away, they cannot use them for growing their own food. Instead, Liu must use what little cash she has to buy rice and vegetables for herself and her daughters. They seldom eat meat and cannot afford to buy eggs.
Liu is also illiterate and heavily in debt. She borrowed 30,000 yuan (US$4,700) from loan sharks several years ago to cover the cost of eye surgery for one of her daughters. Unfortunately, the treatment was a failure and the girl went blind in one eye, compounding Liu’s problems.
“My income is unstable and I’m quite worried about it,” she said. “As I have no relatives to help me, I had to turn to loan sharks.”
By most measures, Liu would appear a worthy applicant for financial help under the government’s poverty alleviation campaign.
However, she said she was rejected for help while better-off members of her community receive 180 yuan a month under subsidies designed to lift farmers’ incomes to a minimum standard.
“I have been applying for government subsidies for many years, but the village officials turned down my application each time. I am very frustrated,” Liu said.
She said her application for poverty relief was denied because she could not provide medical records that proved her husband had been infirm and was unable to work.
The medical records were lost when the family moved to Sanshanjing, Liu said.
Several kilometres away, 66-year-old Li Chunlan and her husband are raising three grandchildren aged nine to 15, the eldest of whom is mentally disabled.
The children’s parents live in the mountains, where they earn a combined 1,000 yuan a month herding sheep for other farmers.
Unlike Liu, Li’s family lives close enough to their 1.3-hectare (3.3 acre) farm to grow one crop of wheat a year, which yields enough to feed them, but nothing extra to sell.
Li’s husband and the disabled child also qualify for government aid of 180 yuan per month.
While the two families have had different results in their efforts to obtain government help, they do have one thing in common: debt incurred to cover medical costs.
Li said she owed 50,000 yuan to loan sharks and relatives – 30,000 yuan and 20,000 yuan respectively – who lent her money last year to pay for her husband’s stomach surgery.
Although her husband receives a government subsidy, his hospital expenses are not reimbursed.
“Our biggest expense is medical costs,” Li said. “I feel sad for my family’s condition and I am inferior to other villagers because we are so poor.
“I am sleepless at night and weep, but my husband doesn’t know.”
These families’ persistent hardships, despite a greater commitment to poverty alleviation across various levels of government in China, raise the question of whether President Xi Jinping can achieve his bold goal of wiping out poverty by 2020.
According to the National Bureau of Statistics, when Xi came to power at the end of 2012, the number of rural poor stood at 99 million. By the end of last year, it had fallen to less than 30.5 million.
China’s poverty line was set in 2011 at a per capita annual income of 2,300 yuan, with the figure adjusted each year.
In recent years, authorities have adopted an “accurate poverty relief” strategy, meaning local governments devise ways to help families based on specific conditions in each village and household.
Wang Sangui, a professor at Beijing’s Renmin University who has closely studied rural affairs, said it was easier for some people to qualify for financial aid than others.
“It’s easier for families with disabled or seriously ill members to be granted government subsidies, while for other families, they have to prove their income is not enough [for the whole family],” he said.
But the system is abused, he said.
“It’s inevitable that in this massive anti-poverty campaign there are official misdeeds, especially corruption, in finding out and recognising the people who are truly destitute,” Wang said. “Many corruption cases in this regard have been investigated.”
Of all the complaints filed with the Communist Party’s anti-corruption watchdog in 2016, more than half were related to poverty alleviation and the granting of financial help at the local level, according to a report last year by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
The Central Commission for Discipline Inspection punished more than 5,000 cadres for poverty alleviation-related corruption in the first six months of 2016 alone.
Kong Xiangbin, an agricultural affairs professor from China Agricultural University in Beijing, said Liu and Li’s cases showed that authorities still had a lot of work to do to meet the country’s goal of eradicating poverty within less than two years.
“It’s an urgent task for rural officials,” he said. “They should check these poor families and think of ways to enable them to earn more.”