Two Chinese Villages, Two Views of Rural Poverty

By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 1, 2006

DACITAN, China -- Nestled mid-slope in the foothills of China's second-poorest province, Dacitan is a village run almost entirely by women, mothers who work the potato and wheat fields while their husbands are away.

Seventy miles to the east, perched on a remote mountain ridge above a collapsing dirt road, Sale is thick with men who sit idle, hoping for opportunity that never arrives and women who rarely do.

Both are Muslim villages populated by members of the ethnic Hui minority, and both are stark examples of the cost of China's blistering economic growth. While cities are booming, drawing migrant workers from the countryside and demonstrably improving life in some rural towns, other communities are shrinking. In the case of Dacitan, the women are left behind for months at a time as the men search for work; in Sale, the men say that few women want husbands in a poor, isolated village such as their own.

"Life here is so miserable, no one wants to marry the men," said Ma Xiuhua, 42, who grew up in Sale and was home visiting her mother. "For girls, the ideal way is to marry someone in the city or in a better village."

Cities hold promise for Chinese today, as home to the new wealth that is far removed from the rural poor. In the last 25 years, China has lifted about 400 million people out of poverty, according to a World Bank report, but efforts to reduce poverty have slowed significantly since the late 1990s and have declined since 2001. Millions of people still eke out a living in conditions that barely support life.

"Currently, the poverty elimination work for the Chinese government is much harder than 20 years ago. Those people who have been left behind are extremely poor and don't have enough skills to be lifted out of poverty," said Wang Yukai, an expert in rural poverty and deputy director of the National School of Administration in Beijing, which trains government officials.

Here in rural Gansu province, in northern central China, treatment for a bad kidney or a broken shoulder can cost a year's salary. The rising cost of gasoline and fertilizer, plus local fees for road building, irrigation and family planning have chipped away at gains derived from the new economy.

Each community survives in its own way.

"Before they went away to work as migrant workers, most of the heavy farm work was done by the men," said Chen Maiya, a 30-year-old resident of Dacitan. "Now it is done by the women. Sometimes I feel tired, but I can do nothing."

Women Left Behind

About 1,200 people live in Dacitan (pronounced DA-tse-tahn). It is the women who sustain the village from day to day. They line the main road on their way to work in the fields. They care for the children. They cook the meals.

Their husbands spend six to 10 months a year away from home. Even when they return to help with the harvest, as they did on a recent day, they are hard to spot.

The women are not in the habit of complaining publicly. Ma Haijizhe, for one, has no time.

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