China's rural problems defy annual solution

BEIJING Thu Feb 2, 2012 9:30am IST

A farmer cuts firewood from trees in a field near the village of Xishaoqu, located on the outskirts of Beijing January 19, 2012. REUTERS/David Gray

A farmer cuts firewood from trees in a field near the village of Xishaoqu, located on the outskirts of Beijing January 19, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/David Gray

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BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese farmer Chen Shusheng's biggest worry is his son, whose scholarly glasses, pale skin and slim blue jeans contrast sharply with the older man's thick, dirt-caked hands, uneven teeth and bulky home-made clothes.

The family's brand-new, whitewashed home an hour from Beijing is complete with flush toilet but lacks a daughter-in-law -- because the son has been unable to hold down a job.

China's new rural generation are no longer peasants tied to their land. But the countryside offers few alternatives, stranding many young people between the old life of manual farming and new world of migrant labour.

"This year hasn't been as good as in the past. We worry about him finding work," Chen fretted.

Every year, Chinese policy makers attempt to boost the country's agricultural productivity and take a stab at rural poverty with the Number One Agricultural Work Document. This year, they are focusing on high-tech investments, including genetically modified crops.

China has rolled out a number of policies in the past decade to improve the lot of farmers and ensure they continue to produce enough food for a wealthier nation. It halted a two-millennia-old grains tax; set a floor for the price of grains and stopped forcing farmers to sell to the state and issued subsidies for seeds, equipment, fertilizer and fuel.

Worried that cities lack the infrastructure to absorb migrants, policymakers have encouraged investment in provincial towns and tried to improve farm productivity.

But rural incomes are still rising stubbornly slowly, frustrating both farmers and policymakers who want urban prosperity to permeate China's poor hinterland.

"We must clearly recognize that the biggest gap in Chinese development is still the urban-rural gap, the biggest structural problem is still the two tracks of the city and the countryside," Chinese premier Wen Jiabao told a rural policy meeting in December.

Average income in the Chinese countryside stands at 6,977 yuan a year versus 21,810 yuan in cities. Incomes in the countryside have risen steadily since China first began economic reforms three decades ago, but wealth in the cities has risen far faster.

"All the young people look for work outside. If you have a good level of education, you can find a good job. If not it's tougher. It all depends on your education," said Han Baoqing, smoking as he watched his wares at a rural market in Pinggu, a county near Beijing.

Places like Pinggu have benefitted from the rise of China's cities -- mostly because they can export both people and crops to richer urban areas.

"One of the greatest things the Chinese government has done for the countryside is to build a good road system," said Richard Herzfelder, a consultant on agricultural issues.

"Once a town connects to a market you can see the whole mixture of crops change, you see the whole landscape change."

MOVING ON OUT

Millions of Chinese migrant workers jammed onto trains to return to their home villages for the Lunar New Year Spring Festival last month, but Wang Xuelian stayed put in Beijing.

The balloon peddlar celebrated in the capital with her 17-year-old son, a security guard who intends to never return to hoe the wheat fields of Henan province.

While leaders set targets to tackle rural poverty, migrants like Wang are well ahead of the politicians -- they simply cut countryside ties and integrate into cities.

"I don't need to go home because my son is here," said Wang, whose thick accent betrays her rural roots.

In just a generation, cities have become home to the majority of mainland China's 1.35 billion people. But migrants lack access to many city services, in particular health services and schools, creating the danger that their children will become an under-educated underclass.

The quasi-official schools that have sprung up for migrant children on the outskirts of towns are expensive, of poorer quality, and shut out of the university exam system.

Many children are left to stay with grandparents in the villages, where schools and clinics are far away and poorly equipped.

Ling Chunhua, a grocer in a warren of alleys near central Beijing, last saw her 10-year old in Anhui province a year ago.

"It's impossible to bring our son here because we have to rush to the wholesale market in the morning, and clean and pack up the store in the evenings. We couldn't bring him to school each day," she said.

Many migrants are reluctant to entirely give up their claim to the family plot, in part because they don't enjoy full rights in the cities. That hinders consolidation of plots that could lead to more mechanization and efficient farming.

The urbanization of China also brings problems to the countryside. Peasants only reclaimed their farms from the state in the early reform era of the 1980s. Now the best land is being lost again, this time to the encroaching cities.

The loss of good land and crumbling rural infrastructure could threaten China's food security. But policymakers prefer to tackle a particular issue each year in the No. 1 document, rather than attempting broader structural land reforms.

The Communist Party fears that if farmers had clear title to land, many would immediately sell, creating a destabilizing class of landless poor.

But farmers without title have no collateral to expand production and little protection when collective land is taken for factories, roads, housing or a local vanity project.

State-defined rates for land compensation are well below the market value, leaving villagers vulnerable to developers and officials who rezone and sell farmland.

Even if land is not lost, wide swathes of Chinese soil and waterways are contaminated by polluting factories and mines, damaging both productivity and health.

"The problems of the countryside can't be solved by picking a hot topic every year," said rural scholar Tong Zhihui, currently on sabbatical at University of California, Berkeley.

"They design it like a political mobilisation campaign, to make it easier to check progress on an area of weakness. But it doesn't help to switch priorities every year because the problems are perennial."

(Editing by Nick Edwards and Richard Pullin)

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