Life in the villages, by a Sichuan farmer
The strategy of western development has won praise from Chinese farmers. But more needs to be done to improve rural residents' living standards.
Q: Can you give me the full picture of life for you and your family?
A: My family is probably representative of most Chinese families in our rural communities. There are five of us and we have roughly a quarter of a hectare of land to farm. My son makes a living working in Shanxi on a building site and I have a small shop next to a school in the town. Generally speaking, we've shaken off poverty and can make ends meet.
Q: How about your fellow villagers?
A: Almost one family out of 10 in Yangbo Town, where I live, cannot afford education, medical treatment or medicine. Let me give you some numbers. Most children at Yangbo Junior School get an average five yuan (60 US cents) pocket money a week from parents, but some get just five jiao (6 US cents). There is one boy I know of whose father died, and whose mother remarried. He lives with his 70-year-old grandfather and gets nothing.
Q: Can you tell me what benefits you have seen since the country launched the western development campaign?
A: There have been many. Firstly, farmers are encouraged by the government's tax-for-fees reform and direct subsidiary policy for agriculture. In other words, the government gives more and takes less. It has promised that farmers here will be exempted from paying all fees and taxation by 2005, although they will have to work several days building infrastructure instead. In the past farmers have shouldered a lot of the tax burden and at the peak, in 1997, every farmer had to turn in 450 yuan (US$50).
Q: What other things?
A: Crop prices have been increased and farmers are encouraged by this. But at the same time, we are still suffering because the price of seeds, fertilizers and other farming materials are soaring, higher in fact than the price of produce.
In 2003, rice seed cost about 7 yuan (84 US cents) a kilogram but this year, it soared up to 20 yuan (US$2.4). The government should stop these price rises. Otherwise, our benefits will be significantly offset.
Q: It seems that benefits always come hand in hand with problems.
A: That's the case. But another big benefit is that we are now closely connected up to the outside world. Since 2000, my family has had telephone and cable TV. Roads have been widened and improved, and travel time from Tongjiang to Chengdu is now only a couple of hours, where it used to take a whole day.
But there again I have another complaint to make. Our villages are mountainous and each is linked by uneven roads. Nearly half of the roads are sometimes impassable with flooding and landslides. The problem is with the inefficiency of village-level leadership. As villagers we are ready and willing to help work on the roads to improve them if the leadership takes the responsibility. At the moment, we can reach larger cities farliy easily, but some villages get stranded.
Q: How about health care in your village?
A: Farmers have to pay medical bills themselves. Becasue these poor farmers cannot afford to pay for a medical check-up, they become poorer when they are caught by some disease, thus forming a vicious circle. I learnt that the central government has taken action to set up co-operative medical insurance system in rural areas. But it will come across two major barriers in my hometown. One is that local government is in financial difficulty, and the other is that local farmers are short of insurance awareness.
Q: Do you have any other pressing needs?
A: We want cheaper electricity. The central government has invested a lot of
money in upgrading grids since 1998, but the cost isn't the same for us and
urban people. The upgrade was finished two years ago, but we are still using
expensive electricity. I have to pay 1.20 yuan (15 US cents) per kilowatt-hour,
and some villagers living at the top of the mountain have to pay 1.70 yuan (21
US cents). But in the town, people pay less than half of that. I have heard that
in Beijing it's only 0.40 yuan (5 US cents), but will rise soon to 0.44 yuan (6