A bird's-eye view of Fengdu, a county in Chongqing Municipality in southwest China, which is divided by the Yangtze River from north to south (CHENG BO)
Every year, when summer arrives, Fengdu, a county in Chongqing Municipality in southwest China, astonishes visitors with its stunning scenery: a vibrant leafy blanket of trees covers the surrounding mountains while sparkling rivers run through deep ravines under the canopy of a clear blue sky flecked with white clouds. When the rains arrive, a fine mist of spray covers the landscape, which looks like a traditional Chinese painting.
Ironically, in the past, the breathtaking scenery added to the local people's woes. The towering mountains and steep gorges made the county difficult to reach, and lack of roads and transport led to a dearth of businesses and factories, which meant there were very limited employment opportunities. The lack of cultivatable land meant the farmers could not feed themselves by relying solely on agriculture. Due to all these factors, Fengdu's economy remained backward.
Like Fengdu, many places in China remained trapped in poverty due to their disadvantaged geography. It was hard for the people living in such places to develop their economy by themselves as they lacked advanced concepts as well as the necessary investment.
However, after the Central Government set 2020 as the deadline to eradicate absolute poverty, the national taskforce for poverty alleviation identified the counties with the weakest economies and work began to pull them out of poverty with targeted measures and funds. Fengdu was one of these counties.
Zhang Jisheng cuts the Sichuan pepper he has grown at home on June 21 (YU JIE)
A new life
The changes in Zhang Jisheng's life are a microcosm of the changes that overtook Fengdu. The 53-year-old first worked as a migrant laborer in the developed southeastern provinces. But after his wife developed mental problems in 2015, he came back to look after his family. He turned to growing corn but the income—2,000 to 3,000 yuan ($291-436) per year—was woefully insufficient.
To make things worse, his son, the apple of his eye, was also diagnosed with the same illness as his wife and Zhang began to contemplate a drastic measure.
"I thought maybe the three of us should take poison. Dying would be much easier for us than enduring the torture that life had become," Zhang told Beijing Review.
At this critical juncture, the local committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the local poverty alleviation group stepped in. "We raised the money to send Zhang's son to hospital," Zhang Yuqun, a leader of the poverty alleviation group, said. "He had to pay only about 10 percent of the costs."
Zhang Yuqun was originally working in a different place. She was sent to Fengdu to help with the poverty alleviation work. She is one of over 459,000 officials and personnel from state-owned enterprises and public institutions across China who have been deputed to regions in poverty since 2015.
Fengdu introduced policies to subsidize the medical expenses of impoverished families registered with the government. Now the families pay no more than 10 percent of the entire treatment cost should anyone fall ill.
"In the countryside, it is common for families to become poor and for those rescued from poverty to become poor again if a member of the family has a major illness," Cao Ling, Director of the Organization Department of the CPC Fengdu Committee, said. "This policy ensures the basic medical service for registered poor families and reduces their burden."
With Zhang Yuqun's help, Zhang Jisheng applied for the subsistence allowance earmarked for counties under assistance and received 540 yuan ($79) per month in 2015. The allowance rose to 1,050 yuan ($153) in 2017. His wife and son too were able to get an additional allowance of 200 yuan ($29) each per month for the severely disabled.
Farmers in Fengdu clean newly dug out potatoes on June 18 (YU JIE)
The Sichuan pepper is a traditional commercial crop in Zhang Jisheng's hometown, Zhanpu Township. During harvest time the small town is redolent with the rich fragrance of the ripe peppers. "Planting Sichuan pepper can protect the environment and also pull farmers out of poverty," Xiang Hailin, mayor of the township, said.
In 2015, the local government began encouraging farmers to plant Sichuan pepper, providing them with interest-free micro loans. Zhang Jisheng applied for a loan of 30,000 yuan ($4,370) to buy fertilizers and pesticides and to hire pepper pickers.
"The government pays the interest on the loans, but the farmers must use the money to develop micro industries," Xiang told Beijing Review.
Zhang Jisheng's Sichuan pepper harvest brings him about 6,000 yuan ($874) per year. In addition, he has landed a new job.
"The government offered Zhang the job to clean the village on a salary of 1,700 yuan ($278) per month," Zhang Yuqun said. Providing such public-service jobs to villagers has proved to be an effective method to increase the income of the impoverished while they also contribute to society, especially in areas with important ecological resources such as grassland, woodland, rivers and lakes.
Today, Zhang Jisheng's annual income hovers around 40,000 yuan ($6,554). Talking about his current life makes his wrinkled face light up with a smile. "I never dared to dream that I could live a life like this. These officials are not even related to me and yet they helped me. I have no words to express my gratitude," he said, becoming visibly emotional.
The local government is also providing poor families financial and technical support so that they can develop agricultural products with regional characteristics. For example, growing Sichuan pepper created an output of 70 million yuan ($10.2 million) last year, lifting 155 households out of poverty.
Raising beef cattle is another traditional industry of Fengdu, which is known as the western beef capital of China. Zhang Shengyu, a local herder, started a cattle farm with over 100 animals with the government's assistance. In 2002, he bought three cows with a special startup loan of 4,500 yuan ($655) from the bank and 10 years later, when he needed money to expand the barn, he got another loan of 30,000 yuan ($4,366), which helped him expand his business.
Besides financial assistance, the government has also provided veterinarians' service for herders when their cattle fall sick or have to be bred.
While developing industries with local characteristics, Fengdu is also tapping its tourism potential cashing in on its scenic beauty. In 2017, a private company developed Jiuchongtian, a tourist site that boasts a glass skywalk with a breathtaking view of a sea of flowers below. The site has made the once isolated village known to the outside world and stimulated the local economy.
It has also opened up opportunities for locals. Liao Changrong used to be a migrant laborer in big cities. After the site was developed and tourists began to swarm the village, the 46-year-old man returned to open a small hotel. Last year, it brought him a net income of 200,000 yuan ($29,105).
Zhang Jinwei, a 63-year-old herder in Fengdu, with his cattle on June 21(YU JIE)
Partnership for progress
As part of the poverty alleviation strategy, the Central Government encourages developed cities and areas as well as big enterprises to assist disadvantaged areas. There is now growing collaboration between provinces from the developed east and the developing west of China to eliminate poverty through providing administrative skills, capital and knowhow. Fengdu has a mentor in Zaozhuang, a city in Shandong Province in east China. Zaozhuang is providing the county with its advanced experience and technology to grow potatoes.
Tang Daixiang, a 54-year-old farmer who used to grow corn, switched to potato with his new knowhow and earned 14,000 yuan ($2,037) from his crop last year, almost 30 times his income when he planted corn.
The Central Government has called for deeper and closer collaboration between provinces from the more developed east and still-developing west of China to eliminate poverty. It has paired richer eastern provinces and municipalities, such as Guangdong, Jiangsu and Shanghai, with underdeveloped western provinces and autonomous regions, such as Guizhou, Qinghai and Tibet, to cooperate on poverty reduction through governance, capital and talent assistance.
Poverty relief has been high on the Central Government's agenda since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949. The effort began to speed up in 2012 after the Central Committee of the CPC set the 2020 deadline to eliminate extreme poverty. In 2013, the method of reducing poverty with targeted measures was introduced. The measures include a system that keeps track of every impoverished household and individual to ensure that the poverty alleviation measures chosen for them are having the desired effect. It has become the basic strategy in China's fight against poverty.
Besides improving the incomes of rural residents with an annual income of less than 2,800 yuan ($408), the poverty alleviation campaign is also ensuring access to compulsory education for all, basic medical care and safe housing.
By the end of 2018, the poor population in rural areas had decreased from 98.99 million at the end of 2012 to 16.6 million. It means 82.39 million people, equivalent to the population of Germany, were brought out of poverty.
UN Secretary General António Guterres once said about China's poverty reduction achievements, "We should not forget the fact that China has contributed the most in world poverty alleviation in the past decade."
With poverty still dogging many developing countries, how did China make such an achievement? The answer lies in devising a complete blueprint with clear poverty reduction goals, registration of the poverty-stricken population and implementation of the targeted poverty alleviation strategy.
Under this system, local officials are held accountable for the work allotted to them, which has become an important benchmark for the assessment of their work. Moreover, besides governmental organs, financial institutions, state-owned and private enterprises and other members of society have contributed to the campaign, making it a nationwide endeavor.
At the 19th CPC National Congress in 2017, Chinese President Xi Jinping, also General Secretary of the CPC Central Committee, said the CPC has made a solemn promise that poor people and poor areas will enter a moderately prosperous society together with the rest of the country.
For Fengdu, according to Cao, the local officials are confident that they will fulfill their promise and eradicate extreme poverty by 2020. However, the work doesn't stop after that. "We will continue to strive for high-quality development on that basis," he said.
Fengdu's story had a footnote added in 2017. It passed the national evaluation and inspection and was removed from the list of China's impoverished counties.
(Reporting from Chongqing)
Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar
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