Out of poverty, the Chinese way

Updated: 2011-12-02 14:18


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ANDING - Perennial droughts and persistent gales led a group of UN officials to describe the township of Anding, situated in Northwest China's Loess Plateau, as being nearly unlivable during a visit nearly 20 years ago.

However, the township's farmers have enjoyed miraculous harvests in recent years, reaping millions of metric tons of potatoes from terraced fields carved into nearby mountains.

Residents of the township, which used to be one of China's most impoverished regions, grappled with hunger and drought for decades. After many failed attempts, they finally worked their way out of poverty, thanks to the hardy nature of the humble potato.

Anding's residents represent about 600 million rural Chinese who have had to grapple with arduous natural conditions. Over the past three decades, 250 million rural Chinese have managed to lift themselves out of poverty, a number roughly equal to the total population of the United States.

"China's poverty reduction drive is historic and exclusive. There are no other countries like China that can bring so many people out of poverty in such a short time," said Napoleon Navarro, country director of the China United Nations Development Program (UNDP).

China's top leaders recently concluded a conference on poverty alleviation and officially unveiled a poverty-reduction plan for the next decade on Thursday, calling for intensified efforts to eradicate poverty and bridge the country's yawning wealth gap.

Liu Yuxiu, former Party chief of Anding's village of Daping still recalls when starvation and thirst were facts of daily life.

"If it didn't rain, we would have no water to drink. With no food, we could only eat wheat awn," said the 62-year-old Liu.

The villagers tried to plant wheat and flax to provide for themselves, but found that the water-dependent crops could barely survive in Anding, where annual precipitation is less than 400 mm.

Poverty continued to besiege the township until the government of Gansu province sent a group of agricultural experts there to carry out research. The experts found that Anding's nutrient-rich soil would be particularly suitable for growing cold-resistant potatoes.

Cheered by the news, villagers tried every means to boost output. Local families worked together to build terraced fields, which help to preserve water and other nutritional elements in the soil.

"We didn't have machinery or tools. We could only use our bare hands to move the soil," Liu said.

Their strenuous efforts paid off, as potato output rose significantly. But the bumper harvest did not keep the farmers happy for long, as they found that their potatoes could only fetch the lowest of prices when they were sent to market.

In 2000, Li Wangze was appointed Party chief of Anding. Li's knowledge of market economics led him to ask major potato growers in the region to establish their own association.

Li and a team of promoters conducted market surveys and found new methods to ship the potatoes to other markets, allowing the farmers to command higher prices. Potato markets are now scattered throughout Anding, which has become a major potato production base.

"Market economics play an important role in China's anti-poverty efforts. It is fair to say China's market reforms sprang from rural villages," said Wu Guobao, a poverty reduction researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

In 2001, China published the Outline for Poverty Reduction and Development of China's Rural Areas (2001-2010), encouraging farmers to raise livestock, grow economically viable crops and engage in side businesses to reap bigger profits.

Farmers throughout the country took the government's call to arms seriously, finding new ways to put bread on the table. Farmers in northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region make money by extracting essential oils from roses, while farmers in southeast China's Fujian province produce biofuel that keeps Boeing jets in the air.

However, China's phenomenal economic growth has discouraged other countries from providing the same anti-poverty assistance they used to.

According to data provided by the State Council Leading Group Office of Poverty Alleviation and Development, between 1996 and 2000, foreign funds dedicated to poverty reduction totaled $840 million. But between 2001 and 2010, the amount of money contracted to $560 million.

The UNDP's anti-poverty funding for China has also decreased, dropping from $200 million in the 1980s to about $70 million between 2006 and 2015.

For its part, China has begun to offer more help to other countries that are struggling with poverty. The China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation has so far devoted 60.88 million yuan to international aid programs.

He Daofeng, deputy head of the foundation, said it will strive to offer 200 million yuan for similar programs over the next five years.