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Visions of China CNN TIME Asiaweek Fortune

SEPTEMBER 27, 1999 VOL. 154 NO. 12

MENGLA: Beyond Prosperity's Reach, 1999
A Grim Pocket of Rural Poverty

A walk up the mountains to the remote regions above Yunnan province's Mengla village is like traveling back in time. A bumpy dirt road gives way to narrow, slippery paths that wind up the steep inclines. Life in these villages--among the 200,000 across China that still lack roads--has changed little over the past 50 years.

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These hills are inhabited by the Hani, a minority people bypassed by reforms. They are among China's poorest, the 45 million people across the land with pitiful infrastructure and virtually no resources. Eking out a living is tough, and the vagaries of climate that bring drought or floods can easily wipe away in a few days the gains of many years. Health care is limited at best and often non-existent.

The Hani build their houses on wood stilts. If the family is rich enough, they may keep a couple of pigs underneath. Above, the extended family lives in a subdivided floor with a communal living space in which a fire burns for cooking by day and heat at night. The temperature turns chilly after dark, and bronchial and respiratory infections are common.

The elders gather in smoke-filled family rooms. The women hover in the background, coming forward only to serve tea. When I visited last December as the chief representative of the Ford Foundation to review a biodiversity project, the men complained about the lack of access to credits, markets and knowledge to improve their farming. They griped about unclear land-use rights and how officials deny them access to the state forests nearby. When the women are coaxed into the discussions, they talk about problems related to their childrens' development and healthcare. The 60-year-old woman you are talking with often turns out to be a mere 45, such is the toll of daily life.

Talk of government is almost entirely negative, as villagers dwell on official intrusion into daily lives. Chatting with farmers in Pingchang county in neighboring Sichuan province, we totaled some 100 demands in fees, levies and quotas that each family had to satisfy. The household head weighed up the competing demands: to plant enough trees to satisfy the forestry bureau, to grow enough grain for the grain bureau, to raise enough pigs to sell to the local government, to stay within the family planning quota, to provide a certain number of days of corvée labor to the local government. He also has to contribute money for a road that he has never seen, let alone used. Where do the revenues go? Most local government spending in these poor areas goes to pay bureaucrats' salaries. The farmers complain about the predatory nature of local leadership and curse the fact that they are required to provide officials with the best housing, the prettiest women to marry and the fattest pigs to slaughter during celebrations.

Just how poor is China? It is difficult to say. No one can dispute the enormous success China has had in reducing the number of absolute poor since reforms began 20 years ago. In 1978 some 250 million people (31% of rural dwellers) were living in poverty; by 1985 those with incomes below 200 yuan (at 1985 prices) had fallen to 125 million. By 1998, the figure had declined even further, to less than 45 million (about 6% of rural dwellers). These official figures no doubt underestimate the problem, though it's probably safe to say that about 250 million people survive just above the official poverty line.

This is a world far removed from the dynamism of the coastal areas. Yet the implications for China's future are enormous. While high growth will be necessary to keep millions out of poverty, new policies will be needed to help those who suffer. China is still a poor country, and its capacity to become a major world player will be constrained by the poverty of its hinterland. When discussing the "China Threat," one should keep in mind the Hani of Yunnan and the small farmers of Pingchang. What kind of threat do they pose and to whom?

Anthony Saich, Daewoo professor of international affairs at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, was the Ford Foundation's chief representative in China from 1994 to '99

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