The family's wooden compound was basic. In the main room where visitors were received, shafts of light from tiny window slits merely illuminated heavy wood smoke from a fire that had made the air almost unbreatheable. The only furniture was a set of broken shelves, empty but for a couple of tin bowls, and 9-inch-high wooden blocks to sit on. A hard bench bed built at the side of the room belonged to the frail, toothless great-grandmother who was sitting on the floor. On the other side of the room, soot-caked woks were perched on a simple cooking hearth. What was this family's most valuable possession? 'The house and the furniture,' said the old lady.
As China's New Rich get richer, and its poorest peasants get relatively poorer, one or other of China's leaders stands up almost daily with a promise to improve conditions for the country's 900 million farmers. But rising inflation, rural unemployment and a crisis in central government finances that limits poverty aid are all contributing to rural dissatisfaction.
This week in the official Legal Daily, Peking admitted to a serious breakdown of law and order in parts of the countryside. In some places 'village social order is out of control', it said, putting part of the blame on the growing wealth gap between urban entrepreneurs and rural poor. 'The intense contrast between a rapid expansion of consumer consciousness and comparatively low economic incomes has caused some of the peasantry to lose their psychological balance and slide into crime,' the report said.
Great Pear Tree village at least has the benefits of being on the main highway - a dusty, bumpy and unpaved road running north- south through Ninglang county, in Yunnan province. Far from China's special economic zones and booming cities, Ninglang qualifies as one of the country's poorest areas; about one-third of its 210,000 population live below the official poverty line of 250 yuan ( pounds 21) per annum. The government's much-publicised goal is to feed and clothe adequately the 80 million Chinese under the poverty line by the end of the century. In Great Pear Tree village, the residents' hopes for prosperity rest, as it happens, on a state subsidised project to plant apple trees.
Poverty in this area can be severe. Yunnan is in the far south-western corner of China, and is home to 24 of the country's minority nationalities, who under Communist rule have often been treated as second- class citizens. Ninglang County, a beautiful, mountainous region of Yunnan, is populated mainly by the Yi people, whose women toil in the fields wearing their traditional costume of full skirts, brightly coloured waist-coats, and huge black mortar-board hats.
Red Bridge township is spread along a thin valley between two mountain passes, and most of its 4,800 population are Yi. Excessive logging has left the mountains denuded of trees, and the dry, red soil badly eroded; logging trucks still thunder down the dirt track every hour or so, transporting hardwood trees felled in more remote valleys. All possible arable land is ploughed into tiny plots, or carved into thin terraces that edge up the mountainsides. The well-off live in wooden houses; the poorer peasants' homes are built from mud bricks. In this township, the average per capita income is 460 yuan ( pounds 38) per annum, above the poverty line but only about half the average for China's rural population.
The household I visited in Great Pear Tree village appeared to operate as an extended family economic unit. Seven people spanning four generations lived in the house, farming three acres of land with rice, corn, potatoes and other crops, but other family members with jobs elsewhere contributed money.
In keeping with Yi customs, gifts of wine, cigarettes and biscuits were placed by the fire while more than a dozen villagers gathered to talk about their lives. Rural discontent is a sensitive subject for the government, and three cadres sat in on the discussions.
What did the peasants want the government to do? 'First, I think the government should provide more poverty aid to such remote minority areas. Second, they should let everybody know about more advanced farming techniques,' said one Yi man. Better seeds and practical skills were needed, he added.
Education seemed to be minimal. Many villagers spoke only in the Yi dialect and could not understand mandarin Chinese. Of those in the room, only the men could read and write Chinese; the women were illiterate. One girl said she had left school when she was 10 years old, after only three years at primary school, despite Chinese law stating that every child is entitled to free education for nine years. 'The families here need labourers for the farms,' explained Su Xuewen of Ninglang County's foreign affairs office. Children ran around everywhere; under state family planning laws, minority parents in remote areas are allowed three children.
Inflation was increasingly a problem, the peasants said. The price of fertilizer was up by a quarter, though in these most impoverished areas, government subsidies were paying the increase. 'But money from selling crops is quite limited. The things we buy are more expensive than what we sell,' said one woman. This area is so poor that the farmers do not have to meet government grain quotas; the limited amount of crops not consumed by the family can be sold on the free market.
The village's hopes of prosperity are now linked to a government sponsored scheme to plant Ninglang province with higher- value crops: apples, hot peppers, plums, and animal feeds. At the back of their house, the Yi family has an orchard of young apple trees which should bear fruit for the first time next year, potentially doubling the family's income.
But Ninglang will still suffer from being a poor county, in a poor prefecture, in one of China's poorer provinces.
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