China's cavemen buried by progress

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MA JUNZHEN lives in a cave made of earth in the village of Wudaoling. The room was hollowed out of an embankment many decades ago, and little has changed in the family's way of life since Mr Ma was born in the 1930s. There is no electricity, and no running water. Such is the drought in this part of Ningxiaprovince in North-west China that no one ever washes.

Of his eight children, only the youngest, now 12, has had any schooling; the rest of the family is illiterate. One of his grandsons, a filthy three- year-old, hobbles around on a crutch because his withered leg never had proper medical attention. Has China's 16-year-old economic reform programme had any impact on Wudaoling? "No effect," sneered Mr Ma. "Life was better 30 years ago. There were fewer people, and more rain."

This year, like last year, the crops in the Wudaoling area failed. "It all died. All the plants froze to death. There is no harvest," said Mr Ma. Limited grain aid is supplied by the local government to ward off starvation. To eke out a meagre living the villagers spend their days combing the arid hills collecting bundles of brittle grass from which they meticulously pick out the black wiry strands of a vegetable called "Fa Cai" to sell in the local town, Tongxin. Its name in Chinese means "get rich vegetable" so that, although tasteless, it is popular in the restaurants of Peking and Hong Kong - the superstition is that it will bring great wealth.

The inhabitants of Wudaoling, however, are still waiting for the Fa Cai's mythic qualities to take effect. As China, the last great communist power in the world, gets richer, one might expect that adequate funds would have become available to improve the living standards of the poorest. But social welfare has not been Peking's priority. Last week, the vice- minister at the State Commission for Restructuring the Economy, Wu Jie, warned against "copying the welfare system of the West". Recently, a Chinese diplomat lambasted Chris Patten, former chairman of the Conservative Party, for Hong Kong's increased welfare budget.

After 16 years of economic reform, the majority of Chinese have seen living conditions improve considerably. But an underclass has been abandoned on the far side of a cavernous wealth gap, with little chance of bridging the divide. Farmers in Tongxin county last year had an annual average per capital income of just 400 yuan (pounds 32).

Wudaoling has become something akin to a human zoo, with Mr Ma's dwelling a "show cave" for Ningxia's deprivation. Visiting central and provincial government officials are brought here, foreign journalists are wheeled through, and there is even a photograph in one of Ningxia's glossy brochures.

"Government officials have come here, but we get nothing," bemoaned Mr Ma. It would be cheap and easy, for instance, to connect Wudaoling to a nearby electricity line, but it is not going to happen. Ningxia, some 600 miles west of Peking, is a poor province, decades behind China's big cities and coastal provinces. But even within such an impoverished region, it is the local disparities in wealth that are the most glaring. It is a mere 20-minute drive down a paved road from Wudaoling to Tongxin town, capital of Tongxin county, yet it might as well be another century. Chinese- style capitalism is making its presence felt - in all its guises.

It is clear that the Tongxin government is not short of funds. The county's party secretary, just back from a month-long inspection tour of five European countries, can be seen driving around the town in a new Mitsubishi Pajero land-cruiser and now wants to visit Israel. In a local restaurant one afternoon, a group of policemen and tax bureau officials in the two private dining rooms could be heard enjoying a long, liquid business lunch. On a recent central government investigation into the north-west, a senior Peking official, Liang Congrong, slammed Ningxia provincial officials. "We came here to work, we don't need this extravagant reception, we don't need banquets with meat and fish and wine every time," he said.

More optimistically, life for ordinary townspeople in Tongxin is also improving. The small department stores are well-stocked with goods, and the main market is laden with vegetables and meat, especially lamb, eaten by the Hui Muslim minority that dominates this region. Private shops and restaurants are plentiful. The owner of a store selling ghetto-blasters said he sold up to 40 of the most popular models a month, at 680 yuan per unit. There is even a video rental store offering such delights as Non-vegetarian Zombies from Outer Space.

None of this, however, brings much joy to the inhabitants of Wudaoling or other further-flung settlements. Their only hope is Ningxia's relocation programme which aims to move a staggering 746,000 people from the poorest, driest southern areas of the province to more fertile regions in the province.

This is Ningxia's main welfare project, which receives a princely grant of about pounds 2.7m a year from Peking. In Wudaoling, half the village, including Mr Ma's brother and eldest son, moved 10 years ago to irrigated land at Hexi, a 40-minute drive away on the other side of Tongxin town. The rest are still waiting.

From 1985, when the relocations started, to the end of 1994, about 176,000 Ningxia people were relocated. Those who have moved are definitely better off but, unfortunately, the project's momentum now appears to be slowing; so far this year, only about 10,000 have been relocated. Mr Ma and the rest of his children are desperate to go. "We have applied several times, but each time I was told there was no place for us," he said.

The "after" picture is on show at Xinzhuang village, part of the Hexi settlement. Here, Mr Ma's younger brother, Ma Ziwen, shows off his newly built brick bungalow, his new cupboards, a television, and an array of basic consumer goods. Irrigated land allows him to grow corn and wheat in relative abundance. Xinzhuang is a significant improvement, but still far removed from life in nearby Tongxin town.

Ma Ziwen's 12-year-old son has never been to school. "He must take care of the sheep," said his mother.