Ten years on after a massive infrastructure push to build roads and railway lines, living standards are rising in western China, a region long left out of the country's growth story and crucial to its stability. But widening inequalities and growing pressures on land are creating new anxieties in villages and small towns.
“If you want to get rich,” declares Zhang Si Cui, watching the steady stream of tractors and small trucks on the newly laid concrete road that runs right past her doorstep, “the first thing you need is a good road.”
But getting rich, and good roads, for long eluded Zitong, a small village in northern Sichuan, a province in China's far west. Farmers like Zhang, who is in her seventies, have spent much of their lives watching from the sidelines as the rest of their country, urged on by former leader Deng Xiaoping three decades ago, “got rich”.
If you draw a vertical line right through the middle of China, you will find, on either side, contrasting growth stories. Much of China's development since the economic reforms and opening up in 1978 has been driven by the booming factory-towns along the eastern coast. Prosperity has since spread inward to the fertile river deltas of the east and the south, where poverty has all but disappeared. Western China, however, is still waiting for its growth story.
A vast, barren but mineral-rich region stretching across nine provinces and administrative regions, including Sichuan, Gansu, Qinghai, Tibet and Xinjiang, western China is home to more than one-fourth of the country's 1.3 billion population. It is, also, home to more than 70 per cent of China's poor, as well as most of the country's 55 ethnic minorities. The far west has historically lagged behind the rest of the country. After three decades of growth since reforms, the disparity has only grown wider. The income gap between rural and urban areas is now the widest in the People's Republic of China's history.
For the ruling Communist Party, the west poses the single biggest challenge to maintaining stability, a fact underscored by ethnic unrest in Tibet and Xinjiang. To meet this challenge, the former president, Jiang Zemin, in 2000 unveiled a massive “Go West” industrialisation drive, pledging to build 35,000 km of roads, 4,000 km of new railway lines and dozens of factories. The government has also earmarked more than $ 125 billion on infrastructure projects, part of President Hu Jintao's larger vision to build a “New Socialist Countryside” with modern infrastructure.
Ten years on, lives are certainly changing in Sichuan. Newly laid four-lane highways are shortening distances, bringing the markets of small towns and cities closer to once-remote villages. Incomes are rising. Access to healthcare and education, long-neglected in much of the far west, is improving. But the rapid development push is bringing with it a host of new problems too. Large-scale infrastructure projects, which the government says are crucial to development, are dislocating thousands of farmers. Rising inflation is threatening to squeeze out an ever-growing section of the populace from the benefits of growth. The stability of the PRC hinges on whether the government can effectively address these challenges.
Zitong, a small, leafy village in northern Sichuan, presents a snapshot of the benefits and costs a decade of development has had on ordinary lives. Here, tradition and modernity uneasily coexist. Tractors, with the paint still wet, recently bought on government subsidies under the $ 586 billion economic stimulus, stand parked in still-in-use cowsheds. An unfinished apartment block, painted yellow and grey, conspicuously rises above green fields, where paddy grows.
“If you came here 10 years ago, you wouldn't recognise this place,” says Wang Jing Hua, a farmer in his seventies. “There were no roads, no cars, no trucks. People were just sitting around with no work to do!” The infrastructure, he says, has been the catalyst to change. It has brought connectivity with the sprawling provincial capital, Chengdu, and access to one of China's fastest-growing tier-two markets. Development has fundamentally changed the kind of agriculture being practiced in Zitong. Farmers were earlier only growing paddy, which brought in little money, and agriculture was largely only for subsistence. But the local government is now supporting farmers to grow different kinds of fruits and vegetables, and plant trees and flowers, all for the Chengdu market. Incomes are rising – farmers in Zitong said they are earning almost three-fold what they were a decade ago.
But rising incomes are only one part of the development story. The massive pumping in of money may have left impressive growth statistics, but it has also left local governments with spiralling debt. To make up for the shortfall, they are swallowing up farmers' lands with increasing vigour, looking to promote expansive real estate developments to attract big industry and Chengdu's rich. Central laws limiting the acquiring of farming land are often violated, with developments loosely characterised as being “in the public interest.”
In Zitong, too, many homes will soon be torn down, and farmers will be moved into modern apartment blocks, a plan that the government has accelerated following an earthquake that struck Sichuan in 2008. The project is hugely unpopular. Asked if she wants to move, Zhang Si Cui, the paddy farmer, hesitantly replies: “It is policy.” But when pressed, she answers reluctantly: “None of us want to move. But we have no choice.” She says they will receive little compensation and no guarantee of employment – they are but casualties on the march to modernisation.
All along Highway 213, which runs from Chengdu, past Zitong and all the way to the provincial border with Tibet, one hears similar stories of rising prosperity, but increasing anxiety over the loss of land and an uncertain future. Further north, in the village of Yanmen, which lies half a day's drive away on the bumpy, still unfinished highway, the demolition of homes has already begun. Development projects cost Xiao Mei* (her name has been changed on request) her farming land, which her family held for generations, and for which she received little compensation. She now rears pigs and chickens in a small plot on the corner of the village, and struggles to make ends meet.
Incomes have risen and healthcare has improved, but farmers are getting priced out. The road to development may have brought the markets of small towns closer, but it has also brought rising prices for Sichuan's poor. “With 100 Yuan (around Rs.700) I could buy so many things five years ago, but it gets me nothing now,” Xiao complains. In her small home, a portrait of the Buddha occupies the pride of place, greeting visitors as they stoop to enter past the small doorway. Hanging next to it is a portrait of Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China's economic reforms. “It was Deng's government that brought the farmers prosperity,” Xiao explains with a smile. “But now,” she adds, “the farmers have been forgotten.”