Alexis Hooi

Getting the lowdown on development

By Alexis Hooi (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-05-07 07:51
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I was lucky enough to visit Liu Yi's farm over the weekend. Tilling about 900 sq m of land in northern China, Liu grows corn to feed his family of four.

The 45-year-old farmer supplements his income by rearing a few horses and renting them to tourists in the surrounding grasslands. He makes less than 10,000 yuan ($1,460) a year for the family.

Liu lives on the outskirts of Hebei province, less than five hours' drive to the north of the booming capital.

Still, he can be considered better off than the average Chinese farmer. Per capita income for the country's rural residents was nearly 2,000 yuan in the first quarter of the year, up by more than 10 percent from a year earlier, latest figures from the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) show.

That is also why Liu is a fitting reminder that, despite its growing economic clout and rising influence on the global stage, China is still very much a developing country faced with the basic challenges of development.

Poverty alone remains a concern. While some analysts consider the country's poverty line of 1,196 yuan per capita net income a year to be too low compared with its economic development and living standard, China already had 40 million people living below the poverty line at the end of 2008, accounting for about 4 percent of the total rural population, figures from the State Council Leading Group Office of Poverty Alleviation and Development show.

A number of social scientists say China's poor actually number 150 million, if the internationally accepted guideline of $1 a day is applied.

Similarly, Premier Wen Jiabao said at the Copenhagen climate change conference in December last year that China is still a developing country with 150 million poor people.

But these figures can be difficult to imagine for many foreigners fascinated by China's development. Those who did not manage to experience the Beijing Olympics two years ago will surely be impressed by the Shanghai Expo, if only on scale alone.

Shanghai reportedly has spent at least $58 billion on the event and related infrastructure to accommodate the 70 million visitors expected during the six-month event that started this month. The Expo has seen record participation by more than 200 countries and international organizations.

Apart than Shanghai, visiting any other booming city in the country is enough to get a taste of rising Chinese affluence - and the glaring gap between rich and poor.

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The income ratio of urban and rural residents, a gauge of balanced development, has been widening for the past two decades. Urban residents' average incomes last year were 3.33 times higher than that of farmers, NBS figures show.

The widening income divide between rural and urban areas has helped pushed the Gini coefficient, a measurement of wealth inequality, to 0.48 in 2007, above the 0.4 cautionary level, economists have said.

The authorities already recognize the importance of closing the rich-poor gap and have emphasized fighting income disparity as well as raising social welfare and rural services to address the most pressing issues facing the country today.

For farmers such as Hebei's Liu Yi who are straining to provide their families with a share of the benefits from the country's development, all this is good news. They will need all the help they can get to live a comparatively comfortable life.