Thursday, April 22, 2010

Empty Villages, Vacant Fields: Jiangxi Village Life

In 2008, a reporter visited a village in northern Jiangxi Province where she found most of the population had left to work in cities. Many of the fields were abandoned, but one old lady told her to keep it quiet so the government won't stop sending subsidies. The article gives a grim snapshot of life in China's countryside.

Vacant Fields

The reporter noticed as he drove along the road that many of the fields were abandoned and covered with weeds. The head of the village explained in forceful terms that the land in that area is too hilly to use mechanized equipment so no one wants to cultivate it.

The village head sarcastically offered his assessment: "Who are you going to interview? This is just a dead village!"

Statistics from the township showed that 15,461 mu of land was cultivated, but the local statistician told the reporter the statistics “may be inaccurate” since these numbers are estimates sent in by villages to the township government, and they don't have anyone to go out and verify them.

The reporter went to the local grain purchasing station to check on the grain production situation. Upon reaching the grain station, he startled an old man who was hard of hearing. The director wasn't around. There was a sign on the gate saying it was a grain station, but it looked like a factory. He finally found the director hanging out at the gas station across the street.

The director explained that the grain station basically doesn't operate any more because not much grain is produced. They only bought 5,000 kg of rice in 2007, about a tenth of what they purchased a decade earlier. At that time the warehouses were full and they even piled grain in the courtyard.

The town's vice mayor said that about a third of the farmland was uncultivated. The land that is cultivated is tended mainly by people over age 50 who grow crops for their own family's food. There isn't much of a surplus to sell.

The village official mockingly asked the reporter, "What use is your report? Can it make them plant their fields?"

All Gone

The official explained that about 90% of working-age people had gone out to work elsewhere, leaving only old people and children. Their village of 100 households had shrunk to 50 people, half of them children. The reporter saw only seven working-age adults: the official, some shopkeepers, a teacher, and a construction worker filing a wage dispute at the township government office.

According to statistics, half of the local population is working elsewhere. Nationally, as of January 2007, there were 120 million were working or doing business in cities and another 80 million working in their own locality.

A villager named Li recalls the old days when the whole family was busy with farm work--even the 4 and 5-year-olds would carry water and seedlings. There was always work to be done. But now it's different. Everyone's door is closed. The kids are in school and the old people are down at the store chatting. People don't visit much; everyone goes to bed early at night. You hardly even hear a good fight any more.

A Villager's Budget

Li describes farming as grinding drudgery. You barely make enough to cover your family's expenses, nothing more. He and his wife, both in their 50s, planted 10 mu of rice paddy and 9 mu of dryland last year, including rice, sweet potato, jute, soybeans, and rapeseed. They grossed less than 10,000 yuan, and their net income was 3,000 yuan (about $450).

A Mr. Liu arriving at the train station told the reporter a farm family's budget. A family of 4 would get 7 fen of dryland and 1 mu, 5 fen of paddy fields per. Dryland can be planted in sweet potato and vegetables that are eaten by the family or fed to pigs. Rice land yields 700 jin or so per mu, which gives you about 500 jin of husked rice. In one season you get a few dan (1 dan = 50 kg) of sweet potato that can feed one pig, 800 jin rice and government subsidies.

Liu sums up, "Your gross income for the year is one pig, 2400 jin of rice, and 100 or so yuan of subsidies." He calculated the gross income as over 5700 yuan, before deducting living costs.

He estimates his minium living cost: farm inputs cost 200 yuan, 136 yuan for his child’s dormitory fees, household monthly expenses of 50 yuan or so, 400 jin of grain, a total of 1470 yuan. Purchasing pork for guests at the new year is a one-time expense of about 15 yuan or so. If you eat pork 10 times a year, that will cost 150 yuan. Buying your two kids clothes costs about 100 yuan. This way, one year’s living costs is around 1900 yuan.

Liu's surplus after living costs is 3800 yuan, if he grows 3 crops of rice a year. But this is assuming you have a strong worker that can plant two mu or more three times a year, no easy task. If you grow two rice crops, the work load is lighter but income is also lower. On top of this you have to give gifts, and there are collections for things like contributions to road construction or temple repairs.

Another villager: "Only the useless people do farming here, struggling for a living. People who go to college or start businesses are the 'able people.'"

A Migrant's Budget

Mr. Liu is working as a painter at construction sites in Wuhan. He gets room and board on-site and as much as 75 yuan per day ($11) and 8 days off per month. His monthly income is as much as 2000 yuan, sometimes as low as 1000 yuan in bad times. “I can generally earn 10,000 yuan to bring home,” he says.

It’s hard work. He only eats pork about twice a month. He works 8-9 hours per day and spends his free time resting. His wife and child are at home planting rapeseed and food grain.

In Mr. Liu’s view, large-scale farming is more risky than working as a migrant. He can’t get rich as a migrant worker but he can guarantee food and clothing for his family. Returning from Wuhan is a joyous time for him; he is bringing his child snacks and new clothes. He plans to save money from working for several years and then do something else.

The way to make money is to send out your sons to work. In the village there was an old person with 5 sons. “In the new year, 5 sons came back from migrant work, each one brought me 2000 yuan, new money.” This 63 year-old man, 59 year-old wife have 5 sons and 7 grandchildren, ages 1 to 12.

The reporter spoke by phone with a woman who had worked as a migrant 4 years and earns 900 yuan a month with meals and housing provided by the factory, spending every day in the factory floor.
She was seemingly in awe of the reporter: “You work in an office?”
“Yes” was the reply.
The migrant followed up, “You just have to type on a computer?”
After a pause: “Wow!”

This place rocks

While cities have lots of ways to make money, a few quarries are the only visible moneymakers in this area. The quarries were started by an investor from Zhejiang, with a stream of nearly 100 trucks carrying away stone to the cement factory in the county town. Each truckload earns about 200 yuan, or 100,000 yuan per day.

Many villagers are critical of the quarries. One shopkeeper told the reporter, these trucks became the township’s “Pearl Harbor” about 5-6 years earlier. On the roads there are one-meter-wide potholes left behind. They see their area’s resources being transformed into money for the Zhejiang boss’s purse with no advantage for them. They have to endure the heavy trucks going back and forth and the dust.

Heartwarming policy

A 61-year-old lady grabbed the reporter and said, "Sister, let me give you a wake-up. Don’t say we have vacant land, understand? The central government's policy is so good--with subsidies and raising prices--we don’t want them to think that we don’t plant crops and are lazy! Then they will stop giving us subsidies. She was clearly worried about it.

This lady often works in the fields, and last year she collected 20 yuan for rice seed subsidies and 20 yuan for grain and comprehensive input subsidies. She’s not sure how the subsidy is determined. Her husband, 60-year-old Wang, was not sure either. But they do know they had already received the new year’s subsidies deposited in their bank account in the first quarter (before planting any crops).

In 2007, the grain direct subsidy was 11.8 yuan/mu; comprehensive subsidy 19.2 yuan/mu; good seed subsidy, early rice 10 yuan, middle rice 15 yuan, late rice 7 yuan. If a farmer planted 3 rice crops, he could collect 63 yuan per mu. There are also subsidies available for rapeseed, breeding sows, and returning cropland to forest.

The lady praised the subsidies: "The government’s policies are really good, it doesn’t matter how much, it’s better than nothing, heartwarming!" Her biggest concern is that the reporter will tell that the laborers have all gone and the remaining people leave land vacant, and the subsidies will stop.

Wang Jian, another villager, also asked with trepidation, "If the central government decides these subsidies are useless, will they stop them?"

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