MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

All this week, we're going to visit China's countryside. The great majority, about 70 percent, of China's people live in rural areas. But, says Professor Shabo Lu(ph) of Barnard College, the farmers have not benefited from China's recent economic growth the way the people in the city have.

Mr. SHABO LU (Professor, Barnard College): The gap is quite tremendous. For example, in cities like Shanghai, Beijing, the income's roughly annually about $4,000, $5,000 U.S. dollars. In the countryside an average farmer family, probably income about less than $1,000 U.S. dollars. So you can see the gap. And also public health, China use to boast of barefoot doctors. No more. In the countryside certainly and to see a doctor is a tremendous challenge for country dwellers.

Education is free supposedly for both countryside and for the cities. And also on the one hand, you have a law requires all kids go to school for nine years for free. On the other hand, in reality, rural government often levy a fee for education. So it's not free. And so the Chinese government became increasingly concerned because this kind of polarization has caused social unrest in the countryside.

BLOCK: The Chinese leadership knows that farmers can be a powerful political force. Peasant support brought the Communist Party to power in the last century. In this century, farmers are beginning to show their discontent with a government that's focusing on urban growth, and economic development. So the Chinese Government has created a plan for what it calls a new Socialist countryside. It involves programs to cut taxes, improve roads, encourage investment and improve schools and health care.

NORRIS: Over the next week, we're going to visit five different parts of rural China to get a better picture of the people the government is trying to help.

In the first part of our series, NPR's Anthony Kuhn takes us to a village. It illustrates the challenge the government faces as it tries to improve life for Chinese farmers.

ANTHONY KUHN reporting:

The village of Dalaochi is the only settlement along a stretch of road in mountainous Northwest Gansu province. The mud-brick buildings here seem to be ust a continuation of the khaki-colored earth they're built on. Farmer Wei Zijian squats at the entrance to the village, sipping from a jar of green tea. The reason he's not out planting his wheat, corn and potatoes today is simple.

Mr. WEI ZIJIAN (Rural farmer): (Speaking foreign language)

KUHN: They won't grow, he says. There hasn't been enough rain this year.

In fact, there hasn't been enough rain here for 10 years. This is Northwest China's arid Loess(ph) Plateau, an area about the size of France. Loess soil is basically compacted dust. Stripped of trees and grass, the soil is easily blown or washed away by wind or water.

To eke out a living in these barren badlands of soaring cliffs and plunging ravines would appear to be an amazing feat of survival. But people have farmed the land here for at least 2,000 years, terracing the hills into a landscape of giant steps. On the rare occasions when it does rain here, locals catch water in concrete cisterns built outside each home.

Wei lowers a metal pail down into the dark depths of the tank to show how low the water level is.

Mr. ZIJIAN: (Speaking foreign language)

KUHN: An elderly relative of Mr. Wei points to the village temple. He says that he and his neighbors pray to the Dragon King, who Chinese folk religion is said to bring clouds and rain. Still, agriculture doesn't yield enough to live on, and Wei and other locals subsist on government handouts.

Traditionally, the majority of Loess Plateau inhabitants lived in caves dug into the hillsides. Wei unlocks a wooden door and steps inside the cave dwelling where he was born 50 years ago. A traditional kang, or heated sleeping platform, dominates the room. Newspapers fall away from the wall in places to reveal the earth underneath. Two more rooms extend deeper into the hillside.

Wei takes out something that makes him really proud. He beams as he displays his two teenage children's certificates for excellence in school. Wei himself never learned to read or write.

The good news for Wei is that he's moved out of his cave into a new one room house just steps away. He bought it for around $350. There's a picture of Chairman Mao on one wall of the house and one of Mickey Mouse on the other. A votive wooden plaque on the table pays tribute to his ancestors. Pictures of his children hang on the walls.

To pay for the kid's school fees, Wei says his wife has been working as a migrant laborer for the past 10 years. She makes around $70 to $80 a month weaving grain sacks, double what Mr. Wei earns from farming.

When asked what his greatest hope for his children is, his answer is immediate.

Mr. ZIJIAN: (Speaking foreign language)

KUHN: College, he says confidently. We'll take out a loan to cover their college tuition, just as we have for their high school education.

His family has lived in Dalaochi for generations, longer than anyone can remember. Dalaochi is one of the few villages left in the area. Most of the others have been relocated elsewhere.

Mr. WEI: (Speaking foreign language)

KUHN: As soon as my kids graduate from college and get jobs elsewhere, we old folks are going to leave here and go live with them, he says without a trace of regret in his voice. It doesn't rain. There's just no way to live here.

Things have definitely improved in Dalaochi. In the past decade, the village has gotten electricity and most families now have televisions. Yet many older village residents have never seen a train or an airplane. Most are so poor they can't afford to eat meat except at Chinese New Year. China's government has recently outlined its vision of building a new Socialist countryside that's clean, prosperous and democratic. Dalaochi shows just how far they have to go. Whatever the future is, residents just hope it won't be here.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News.

BLOCK: Tomorrow we'll visit a place that calls itself the richest village in rural China. There families have multiple televisions and homes that wouldn't be out of place in an American suburb. Later in the week, we'll here from teachers at a rural school, from a woman who has left her family in the countryside to work at a better job in the city and from a town where the farmland has been taken over by a chemical factory.

NORRIS: And there's more about rural China on our website. You can see pictures of the villagers and their cave houses from today's story. There's a narrated slide show that takes a look at the face of rural China and more at NPR.org.

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