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Govt maps "new countryside" scheme

XI'AN, Dec. 16 (Xinhuanet) -- When China's central authorities worked on an economic agenda of "constructing a new countryside" in the country earlier this month, they were considering a problem that also worried 84-year old farmer Tian Lu: rural desolation and stagnation.

    The old man in Tianjialiang, a village in Fugu county, northwestern Shaanxi Province, worries that his remote village on the country's dry, barren loess plateau will one day disappear as more and more villagers leave to cities for a better living.

    The population of Tian's village dropped from more than 100 in the 1990s to less than 40, most of whom are old and weak and have to live on government aid.

    Villagers have to rely on rain water stored in a pit during rainy season. Telecommunication services are an unavailable luxury. When ill, people go to a clinic in a village several kilometers away.

    Tian's son and daughter both work in the county seat, leaving the old man and his wife, more than 70 years old, in the village alone.

    "They will no longer come back to live here. After my wife and I die, one more family will disappear in the village," the old man sighed.

    To his relief, however, the Chinese government is showing increasing concern over problems in its rural areas, where more than 60 percent of its 1.3 billion population live.

    To drive rural development, the central authorities have listed "building a new countryside" as a top component of next year's economic agenda.

    In a description by Premier Wen Jiabao, a "new countryside" was defined as one where farming production grows, and farmers enjoy a good living in villages with democratic management, a clean natural environment and healthy morals.

    In early October, the "new countryside" scheme was included into a proposed outline of the country's Five-Year Program for 2006-2010 period by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC).

    Under the scheme, the state will increase its financial injections into rural areas to stimulate farmers' enthusiasm in production, increase their income and improve rural infrastructure and public services.

    Rural areas will replace cities as the major destination of state investment in the following years, said Wen Tiejun, a professor of the school of agriculture and countryside development under the Beijing-based Renmin Univerisity of China.

    "The shift of governmental investment undoubtedly represents a major breakthrough in alleviating rural problems that have troubled the country for more than a decade," the professor said.     

    Since the 1990s, when the country's current urbanization drive began,agriculture, farming and the countryside, together called "sannong" in Chinese, became a damper in China's overall economic growth. Yet the urban areas witnessed rapid growth as a result of the diversion of labor, land and investment from the countryside to cities.

    The diversion resulted in a rapid urban boom but left most rural areas stagnant.

    According to the National Bureau of Statistics, the per capita annual net income for rural residents in China in 2004 was 2,936 yuan (about 370 U.S. dollars), rising 6.8 percent from the previous year, but the country still had 26.1 million rural people who lived under the poverty line, or a per capita annual income is less than 625 yuan (about 78 U.S. dollars), the same year.

    The average income for urban residents was 3.21 times higher.

    While 42 percent of urbanites can have their medical expenses shared by cooperation mechanisms, nearly 90 percent of rural residents do not have such a privilege.

    Waking up to the threat that the rural-urban gap, if not shortened, might undermine the country's harmony, Chinese policy-makers began to stress a coordinated development between cities and the countryside in 2002, when the ruling CPC held its 16th National Congress.

    The government has made a series of policies to shore up rural development, including the exemption of the farming tax, and a promise of offering free compulsory education to all poor rural children.

    But in the eyes of urbanization supporters like Zheng Mengxiong,a researcher with the policy research office of CPC's Shaanxi Provincial Committee, village recessions like that in Tianjialiang are not necessarily bad.

    Favorable policies, however, are crucial for the well-being of people who stay behind in rural areas since it is impossible for all rural areas to urbanize quickly, said Zheng.

    In Tian's village, a gravel road was constructed at the end of 2003 with an investment of 400,000 (about 50,000 U.S. dollars) from the county government, taking the place of a one-meter wide mud footpath. Villagers bid farewell to dark nights in 2004 after they were incorporated into the county's power supply network.

    "I don't want my children to stay in the village all of their life like me. However, my wife and I are both expecting better days in the village," said Tian Lu. Enditem

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