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Chinese Farmers Do Not Expect Fast Relief From Poverty - 2004-03-12

Bridging the income gap between China's urban rich and the rural poor has been among the top issues at this year's session of the country's National People's Congress. Leaders have outlined measures to alleviate poverty and improve social security for the country's 900 million farmers. But many say they do not expect rapid relief.

On a dusty highway hundreds of kilometers from Beijing, 40-year-old Zhu Jinsong and his wife Xiukun work from dusk to dawn fixing tires on coal trucks.

The Zhus came to Shanxi province two years ago from a village near Harbin, in China's northeast, where he was a farmer and his wife worked at a state-owned factory that made machine parts. When the factory closed and she lost her job, the couple traveled 2,000 kilometers and set up a small roadside garage next to many others.

Their business has kept a competitive edge by staying open all night.

These days, Mr. Zhu says, you really have to count on yourself and your work.

The couple struggles to make about $6 a day, putting them in a higher income bracket than most rural residents, many of whom get by on $70 a year. Mrs. Zhu says that despite this, her family is struggling.

"Our condition is not good," he said. "We cannot afford to eat meat every day."

The Zhus are among the millions of Chinese farmers who have had to leave their land and travel far in search of work. Like millions of other migrants, they have no health insurance or other social security benefits.

When China's 3,000-member National People's Congress convened earlier this month, the issue of rural poverty was high on the agenda. In presenting his report on the government's work to the NPC, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao said the leadership this year must find more direct and effective ways to increase rural incomes.

Rural poverty, unemployment, and the income gap between the countryside and the cities have all been discussed at previous sessions of the People's National Congress, which have been known for producing little more than statements of ideals. But observers say officials at this year's session have come out with a list of specific measures.

In his speech, Mr. Wen said the government will stop local officials from illegally taking farmland for development. Much hated rural taxes will be repealed. Proceeds from bond sales will be invested in rural projects. Crop subsidies will be given directly to farmers, a departure from the past when the payments were made to local Communist Party officials.

All of these measures are meant to improve life for people such as Mr. Wang, a 40-year-old buckwheat farmer in the village of Hou Jia Cun. But Mr. Wang says he is not paying much attention to the proceedings at the NPC, because he has no hope that the government can make things better on the farms quickly enough.

He says his plot - given to his father during China's Communist land reforms - is too small to yield anything more than what he needs to subsist. He has no modern equipment, so he has to do all of the planting and harvesting by hand.

Mr. Wang and his wife have four children, whom they are struggling to put through school. He says he hopes his children will do well enough to go China's best universities. He does not want them to be farmers.

Mr. Wang says the government has no business in any of this matter. He says, "We have to rely on ourselves."

Twenty-year-old Hou Linyu helped her mother grow buckwheat on a small plot outside Hou Jia Cun, until she found a job at a small shoe factory, where she makes a little more than $1 a day for 10 hours of work. Her hands are badly swollen, her fingers are peeling and bleeding. On her fingernails are traces of nail polish.

"I work so I could raise myself," she said. "I give half of my money to my family. I want to overcome poverty and live a nice life, and I want to be a model. All girls love to dress up."

Hou Linyu says she has no hope of improving her life in Hou Jia Cun. She dreams of one day leaving the village and going to Beijing or Shanghai where magazines and television show big buildings and shopping malls going up, it seems, overnight. She says she would like to find a job there, but wonders what she will be able to do in a big city.

"I can not do anything anyway," said Hou Linyu. "I do not have enough education."

The administration of President Hu Jintao, in office for one year, has said it wants to continue to push for the goal set by former President Jiang Zemin to create a well-off society in China by the year 2020.

In past years, the government pledged to pump billions of dollars into rural programs, and planned to provide more farmers with social security benefits, such as health insurance. At Hou Jia Cun, villagers say they have seen none of that aid.

While many of China's rural dwellers do not doubt the government's good intentions, they wonder when the benefits will reach them.

Many have taken jobs as migrant workers in the cities. As one Hou Jia Cun resident put it, the best way out of poverty for now is the road to the train station.