Out of the Dark In Rural China
Electricity Transforming Village Life
By Peter S. Goodman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 25, 2004; Page A01
SHUIZHUANG VILLAGE, China -- Inside the stone house, a woman stirs greens over a wood fire, the smell of smoke infusing the straw baskets piled along the walls and the slabs of pork drying from the rafters. The sound of cows and chickens filters through the floorboards from a pen beneath the house.
In this ethnically Tibetan village in China's southwest, life seems little changed from generations ago. Terraced fields carved into the bend of the Ganjo River sprout yellow wheat. Villagers haul water from the river for cooking, washing and drinking. They walk a full day down a dirt trail to get to the nearest market town for tools.
Yet as the sun drops below the mountains, a bit of modernity emerges. Atop a pile of rocks set on the riverbank, a hydro generator the size of a coffee can, freshly installed last year, kicks to life. Single bulbs cast dim light through the five houses of the village.
In one home, two dozen villagers sit on the floor, their faces flickering blue with the light of a television. As a donkey keens outside, they stare transfixed at a drama beamed in by satellite from Beijing: Two men compete for the love of a woman. When an ad for bottled water comes on, someone changes the channel.
As China seeks to secure sufficient stocks of energy to fuel its industrial expansion, most attention is focused on coastal cities, where power is being rationed in the face of voracious demand from steel mills, auto factories and skyscrapers. But while urban areas may be the most visible sign of the refashioning of China's economy, the scene here in Yunnan province, some 1,500 miles from the coast, underscores a subtler change reshaping poorer, rural areas: Villages are being wired with electricity, altering the way people cook, work, secure cash and pass the evening.
Television now penetrates the most remote corners of the country, giving people who have never traveled beyond a day's walk from their homes an inkling of the world beyond. Isolated farmers are seeing for the first time how a growing nouveau riche lives in China's largest cities, recognizing at once how quickly their country is developing and how little new wealth is reaching them.
Some 98 percent of all Chinese households now have electricity, yet that leaves tens of millions of people without, according to a recent report in the official China Daily newspaper. As the government tries to close this gap, it is leaning heavily on hydropower. By the government's reckoning, China has potentially exploitable hydropower capacity of some 87 million kilowatts -- more than any other country.
Huge projects such as the $25 billion Three Gorges Dam -- the largest such undertaking in the world -- account for much of the plans. But giant dams have displaced millions of people from their homes and raised environmental concerns. The Ministry of Water Resources is now pressing a campaign to subsidize the construction of small-scale hydro projects.
Here in the mountains of northwestern Yunnan, such works have particular importance because of limits on logging imposed after a series of disastrous floods on the Yangtze River in 1998. Deforestation in these upland areas of the Yangtze is blamed as a key culprit in the floods. Villagers dependent on firewood for fuel increasingly must find other sources.
'It's More Convenient'
On a recent three-day walk through the Ganjo River gorge, which flows into the Yangtze and traverses parts of Yunnan and Sichuan provinces, the changes brought by electricity to this predominantly agricultural area revealed themselves like geologic strata: Each new village reached was less touched by the modern world than the last.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company