Par Edward A. Gargan
Asia Correspondent, August 6, 2002
L'extrait de "Legions Left Behind" dans le quotidien newyorkais Newsday
Shangbao, China -- A thread of macadam through the countryside, yellow-clay paths bumping through several weary villages, and a river crossed in a small skiff oared by an old man in a straw hat -- those are about the only ways to get to Shangbao.
Beyond two ranks of single-story houses arrayed on a slight rise above rice paddies brushed with the phosphorescent green of early shoots, farmers tugged and scraped at patches of earth with long-handled hoes. Silhouetted against the setting sun, a solitary figure towed a water buffalo on a frayed rope behind him.
Here, some 750 miles south of Beijing and eons from the giant engine of wealth creation that has dramatically transformed China in ways unimaginable only a decade or two ago, the residents of Shangbao (population: 82) are anchored in an unchanging landscape of hard-scrabble poverty.
The astonishing creation of a large urban middle class within the span of a single generation contrasts sharply with the abject conditions of hundreds of millions of the rural poor, transforming the erstwhile "classless society of Mao Zedong into one of the world's most unequal nations.
From the harsh existence of Shangbao, villagers say, there is almost no hope of escape, or of effectively raising living standards and joining the other China. "This is a very small village; it has always been very poor, said Xiong Xunyao, the smooth-faced farmer elected by residents as village head. "We count on our fate, not the government. We have no way to change our fate. The differences between our area and developed areas are so great. We will never be like them. Perhaps no single place can completely represent
China's 750,000 villages. But Shangbao, remote and in large measure untouched by the tidal wave of economic and social change that has swept across urban and parts of rural China, is similar in many respects to those villages that are being left behind in China's stampede toward economic modernization.
The 1990s, a decade in which China's total economic output more than quadrupled, also saw a commensurate growth in inequality between urban and rural areas, according to a new survey of China's economy by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development. Of China's 1.3 billion people, fully half earn their subsistence toiling in the fields in villages, and today these rural households earn scarcely 35 percent of what their urban counterparts do, an income gap that has grown over the decade of the 1990s and shows no sign of slowing.
This mounting impoverishment of China's villages, particularly those far from coastal areas, has led to an exodus of rural villagers into China's cities, creating a mobile population estimated at 125 million people. Armed with little or no education, in an age when education no longer is universally free, many of these internal migrants have little chance of gaining admittance into the new China. Shangbao, too, has sent its villagers off to seek work.
* * * Xu Jiaqin stepped out of a roasting sun into the slightly cooler shade of her parent's two-room, dirt-floor home and settled onto a concrete bench. All around her neighbors lounged around mah-jongg tables, playing the traditional game of tiles similar to dominoes. Mah-jongg fills the dead period when villagers waited for the next rice harvest.
Xu spoke of her family's constant and invariably futile attempts to rise above their level of subsistence, of dependence on a three-acre rice paddy, of the inevitable decision to try the big city for a change of fortune.
"My father has to take care of six people in our family, she said. "He has to work really hard and we don't have any money to send my brothers and sisters to school.
And so, like many of the children of this village, Xu, a ruddy-faced 18-year-old who managed to complete only six years of schooling, left Shangbao last year in search of work in Beijing, the nation's capital.
"I worked in a little lunch-box restaurant, a short-order restaurant that prepares take-out food mostly for construction workers. "I washed dishes. For three months I worked there. Each month I made 240 yuan -- nearly $30 -- "and they gave me a room and food.
An income of less than a dollar a day ensured that Xu could never save enough to help her family back in Shangbao. "It wasn't enough, she said. "It wasn't even enough for the train ticket. Finding this sort of job was not so difficult. But it was too cold there. I got frost bite on both my hands. My father knew my hardships and asked me to come home.
But coming home solved nothing, and just after Chinese New Year in February, she left home again, this time heading for the coastal province of Zhejiang. "Our family is poor and my little brother is still in school, she said. "I wanted to go out and earn some money. I stayed 20 days in Zhejiang, but couldn't find a job. I don't have any real education so finding a job depends on luck. All I can do is work as a kuli, what in Chinese translates as "hard labor, and from which the pejorative "coolie is derived.
"I don't think I'll try again, she sighed. "It's just too hard.
As hard as working outside Shangbao can be, and at any given time about two dozen or more villagers can be away looking for work in cities around China, farming is equally arduous and with limited financial rewards.
In a green Mao cap, khaki shirt and worn gray pants -- the veritable uniform of a now distant era that can still sometimes be found on the backs of the poor -- Xiong Xunyao trudged back from his fields. Soft-spoken in manner and realistic in his assessement of the village's condition, the 51-year-old was judged by fellow villagers as possessing just the right qualities needed in the man to head their community.
At the moment, though, Xiong was more worried about the state of his rice than the state of the village.
"My father was a farmer, said Xiong, whose surname is shared by half of the village that traces its genealogy to a common ancestor. "His father was a farmer. So I am a farmer. I got as far as middle school but then the Cultural Revolution came, and that was the end of my education. The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was a decade-long period of political terror, purges and massive dislocation that ended in 1976 with the death of Mao.
"Since the end of the Cultural Revolution, there haven't been many changes in this village, Xiong said. Electricity came in 1978, but many people cannot afford to pay their bills and so the power is frequently cut. Two years ago, the first telephones were installed and there are now four lines among the 20 households.
Such luxuries, he said, have not altered the chronic nature of Shangbao's poverty. At less than $200 a year, the average annual household income is below the provincial average of $264.
"We only have small harvests of rice, said Xiong, whose own holdings are little more than an acre and a half. "We used to have two crops a year, but now because of the floods, only half the fields can be harvested. And when we have a harvest and the price is low, the grain dealers come and buy all the grain. When the price gets higher, we don't have any to sell. Now the price for our rice is going down because our rice is not good. We don't have good seeds.
Much discussion in Shangbao revolves around rice paddies -- about yields, prices, seeds, irrigation, pests. And always, about onerous taxes that farmers are compelled to pay by local officials.
Taxes vary widely in Jiangxi province, and across much of rural China, in part depending on the caprice of local party officials. Last year, confrontations flared frequently between farmers and police throughout Jiangxi over extortionate taxes imposed by corrupt officials. In one town, farmers printed up leaflets denouncing local officials, an act that brought swift reprisals from the police who worried about the spread of rural revolt. "Even if we didn't pay taxes we'd be poor, Xiong said.
Their fields squeezed between a rough of low hills, Shangbao's famers toil almost entirely by hand; the two-wheeled, gas-engine tractors so common in wealthier coastal provinces are, at more than $2,000 each, prohibitively expensive for anyone here. Even that other ubiquitous farming equipment, the water buffalo, a relative bargain at only $250, costs more than the average annual household income in Shangbao.
Although Shangbao's poverty seems irremediable, all the villagers here say that educating their children is their highest priority. That is what drives people from the village each year into the highly uncertain and often lonely life of the migrant worker, and caused the cumulative debt owed by villagers to balloon to nearly $100,000, according to Xiong. Usury is common, and many rural folk sink deeper into debt they are unlikely to easily repay. In the age of doctrinaire communism, education was universal and free. Now everyone must pay to educate their children.
"School is too expensive, moaned Wu Jinggen, whose two children go to a middle school in a neighboring town where the tuition runs nearly $100 a year per child, far more than Wu extracts from his rice paddies.
Like others in the village, Wu has traveled around the country looking for work to send his children to school, travels that took him to Beijing and Nanjing. But unlike many in his village, Wu also has persisted in planting a variety of other crops, all in the hope that he could, if not become rich, at least earn enough to educate his children and live less austerely than he does now.
That success in school can be a ticket out of Shangbao is evident in the home of Dai Caijin and her husband, Xiong Fanxue, who, from their two-room house at the far end of the village, have managed to send their three children to universities in the northeastern coastal city of Tianjin.
"Peiyun is the first boy of this village to go to university, boasted Dai, referring to her eldest child, who now works as a reporter at the Tianjin daily paper, The Morning Post. In his wake followed his two sisters, one of whom also found work on the paper; the second is pursuing graduate work, also in Tianjin.
"He studied very, very hard, Dai said, "and was able to pass the national examinations to get into university. China's university admissions exams are extremely competitive and only about half of those who take it win admission to one of the country's universities. This year, about 5.3 million applicants sat for college entrance exams, with about 52 percent gaining admission, according to the official China Daily. By far, most freshmen come from cities where the school systems are better and parents are more easily able to afford the extra tutoring required to pass the exams.
Although her children occasionally return to Shangbao to visit -- Peiyun has not been back for two years -- Dai thinks it is inevitable that successful children abandon ideas of returning to their home villages. "It's too hard to live in the countryside, she said. "Now, Peiyun sends money back to us to help educate his younger brother. We hope he will leave someday, too.
Yet it is the continually rising cost of education that is making it harder for the young people of Shangbao to stay in school.
"I was in third year of junior middle school, said Xiong Qing, 16, a gangly youth whose dirt-caked fingernails attest to long hours in the fields. "There wasn't any money any more and so I had to leave.
For Xiong Qing, leaving school was especially disappointing because his father had spent most of his life traveling around China in search of work. In Shangbao, he is known, with a mixture of affection and pity, as "the man who subsidizes the railroad.
"He loves to travel, Xiong Qing said, "but he never brings any money back. Affecting a railway conductor's staccato delivery, the youth recites his father's past destinations -- "Hangzhou, Hainan, Deqing, Beijing, Kashgar, Zhejiang, Guangdong -- a chronicle of travel that embraces most of this country, a land the size of the United States.
"I want to go back to school, Xiong Qing said.
Often, the dream is all but impossible to achieve.
"Five or six years ago people started to leave the village to go to work, said Xiong Xunyao, the village head. "Families had no way to earn enough money from farming. Sometimes whole families leave. We're not sure if they will ever come back. I know that they work very hard outside of the village, but unless the price of grain really increases, I don't see how any of them will come back.
For most villagers here, the bright lights of Beijing and Shanghai, the cities where China's fate -- and theirs -- is being molded, are fuzzy images on Shangbao's 10 black-and-white and two color television sets. Even for most of those who do make it to the cities, the cycle of poverty often takes on the appearance of immutability.
Yet, for those who are lucky, and talented enough, a slender thread of release is offered by education, something villagers here know and are willing to sacrifice for. That lesson is all too apparent at the last house on the edge of Shangbao village, in which Xiong Peiyun was born.
"Knowledge, says Xiong Peiyun, the journalist, "changes fate.
In a checked button-down shirt and crisp black slacks, Xiong Peiyun pulls a chair closer to the linen-covered table in a restaurant in his adopted coastal city of Tianjin. A world away from Shangbao, Xiong Peiyun has joined the new China, though his heart, he says, still feels the pull of the simple trusts of village life. "It's hard to imagine how poor Shangbao is, he says, pouring a fresh cup of green tea. "But our parents wanted all of us to go to college. And we all did.