China Declares Victory Over Poverty. But What About ... Jobs? : Goats and Soda The government has declared victory over poverty. NPR talks to the people who've been moved from poor rural villages to brand-new apartment buildings to see how they're now faring.

China Says It Has Ended Poverty. Is That True?

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At the end of last year, China made an audacious announcement. They said they had eliminated all poverty. The government said they achieved this by asking companies to move factories inland into poorer communities. There was investment in new roads and hospitals, and the government moved nearly 10 million people from remote villages to new housing complexes. NPR's Emily Feng ventured into what was one of the poorest regions in the country to see if these projects to eliminate poverty are working one year later.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Guizhou was historically the poorest Chinese province, in part because much of its ethnically diverse residents were isolated in tiny mountain villages.


FENG: Now it has several housing complexes like this one, called Qixingguan, with rows and rows of identical modern apartments. Thirty-two thousand people came down from the mountains two years ago and got free homes here covered with slogans like, thank the Chinese Communist Party for a happy, peaceful home.


FENG: A nearby park is filled with relocated residents, including Luo Beiling, who was trying to sell ceramics.

LUO BEILING: (Through interpreter) We could barely drive to our old village. It was no way to live. Officials told us if we moved here, we could each get a $45 monthly subsidy and free utilities.

FENG: Ms. Luo is the recipient of a massive experiment to erase poverty through a combination of infrastructure investment, free housing and social welfare payments. And the prefecture where she lives, Bijie, was infamous for being poor. It made headlines in 2016 when a mother killed her children and herself because of their dire circumstances. So various Chinese leaders have made developing Guizhou a pet project. And nearly one-fourth of its anti-poverty funds, or about $700 million, has gone to this one prefecture alone, though Ms. Luo says she has not seen much of that money.

LUO: (Through interpreter) No one has gotten their subsidies. But we now have to pay for tuition, for insurance and for food, which we used to grow for free. But our old village housing has been torn down. We're stuck.

FENG: That's because they're still struggling to get well-paying jobs. Those remain clustered along China's eastern coast, not in mountainous, landlocked places like Guizhou. Qixingguan residents got free houses, a huge boost for sure in a country where most private wealth has stemmed from property. But upwards mobility - that still eludes those relocated, like Jenny Lu, who was once a migrant worker in the coastal metropolis of Shenzhen.

JENNY LU: (Through interpreter) Who wouldn't want to live in a rich city like Shenzhen? No one wants to come back to a place like Bijie. But we had no money, no schools for our children. And who wouldn't want a free house?

FENG: The government has tried to move factories in big, coastal cities to rural communities. Dozens have set up near Qixingguan already, looking for cheaper labor. Bijie resident Zhang Zhengfu says he looked into working there, but the average salary was less than $300 a month, about a fifth of what he used to make as a migrant worker.

ZHANG ZHENGFU: (Through interpreter) I'm not saving any money, though I also won't starve to death. Officials said they'd help us find work when we move, but if we didn't move, they were going to tear down our villages anyhow. We had to move.

FENG: So many residents, like new college graduate Zhong Jianhua, are contemplating leaving Bijie for migrant work again.

ZHONG JIANHUA: (Through interpreter) I'm planning on going to Fujian province and Guangdong province in April to work. Salaries here are just too low.

FENG: Fujian and Guangdong have big manufacturing hubs. Zhong says he'd like to stay home, but he can't afford his new consumerist lifestyle.

ZHONG: (Through interpreter) The living conditions here are way better, and transportation is more convenient than it was in the mountains. And before, we could plant our crops. Here, everything requires money.

FENG: China says this year, it wants to employ 30 million - or about 30% - of those just lifted out of poverty. Their best bet for creating jobs are social cooperatives funded by state and private investment but majority-owned by the villagers themselves. One of the more successful in Bijie is the Hequan Mushroom Co-op.

SUN DAHUI: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: Sun Dahui, the manager, shows us around the black-tarped greenhouses still steaming with the flowery smell of rice liquor, which he uses to disinfect equipment.

DAHUI: (Through interpreter) We used to plant corn, which was easy to grow but brought in very little money. Now one mushroom greenhouse can bring in up to $4,500 a year.

FENG: And he has 40 of them. The co-op now employs about 600 people. But their biggest problem is mushroom prices keep falling. That's because all the nearby villages, inspired by Mr. Sun's example, are now also growing mushrooms. The entire valley is blanketed with fungal greenhouses. But Mr. Sun thinks he can outcompete them.

DAHUI: (Through interpreter) We're building our own processing facility to make mushroom-based sauces. We're going to be the next big thing.

FENG: It's people like the exuberant Mr. Sun who are now looking for ways to lift local incomes and to keep people from sliding back into poverty. Emily Feng, NPR News, Bijie, China.

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