Rooting Out Poverty in the Poorest of Places
It was spring, and I found myself climbing up the side of a mountain on a 2,556-step steel ladder to Atulie'er Village, nicknamed the "cliff village," in Zhi'ermo Township, Liangshan Prefecture, Sichuan Province.
Villagers were moving along this "stairway to heaven" with supplies for the inns and shops, while visitors clambered upward and leaned out to snap photos of Guli Canyon as the sun rose over a sea of clouds. Once the peak season arrived, throngs of tourists would visit this village towering roughly 800 meters above the ground every day.
While up the mountain there was prosperity, down the mountain there was also hope. In May 2020, 84 registered poor households from Atulie'er Village, a total of 344 people, moved to new homes in a resettlement area on the outskirts of the central town of Zhaojue County. What led to this change of fortune for the "cliff village" was a great anti-poverty campaign unprecedented in the history of the Chinese nation.
Since the 18th National Congress of the CPC in 2012, the CPC Central Committee with Xi Jinping at its core has made poverty alleviation a top priority in national governance, and united and led the whole Party and the entire nation in organizing and launching the largest and most intense battle against poverty in human history. In the process, it has brought the political strengths of the CPC leadership and China's socialist system to bear, and employed a great many unique and pioneering measures.
As a result of the campaign, Atulie'er, this remote village in the mountains which has remained the poorest of places for as long as anyone can remember, is now finally transforming.
Ladders of rattan, ladders of steel, ladders to a better life
On the morning of May 13, 2020, 51-year-old Mou'se Dati got up earlier than usual. Rays of sunlight slanted through the cracks around the door of his little house perched halfway up a mountain at an elevation of more than 1,000 meters, illuminating the dark room within. After sweeping the ashes out of the fireplace, he stepped out of the house and locked the gate, and then turned around for one last look at the shabby old house. That day, he and his wife were leaving the mountain, never to come back.
Going westward from the fertile plains of western Sichuan, the terrain suddenly becomes mountainous. Set among the creases of this rugged land are the poorest villages in Liangshan Prefecture. Atulie'er, the village that Mou'se Dati hails from, is one of them. It is widely known as the "cliff village," a nickname inspired by the ladder of rattan and sticks leading up to it. In the past, when villagers travelled to or from this home of theirs hanging halfway up a mountain, they had to spend two or three hours climbing the ladder. Poverty gripped the people tight in its grasp, and the mountains ensured that it was locked in. Secretary of the village CPC branch Mou'se Jiri said that these hard-up conditions meant that the village's young men were less attractive as suitors to young women from elsewhere.
When the people of the "cliff village" carried corn down from the mountain on their backs to sell, they would be offered a lower price for it. Mou'se Dati said this was because "buyers knew we had already brought it down, and there was no way we were going to haul it back up."
In 2016, Liangshan Prefecture and Zhaojue County spent a million yuan on a 1.5-meter-wide metal ladder made of more than 6,000 steel pipes. The Atulie'er goat-farming cooperative was established in January that same year, and with the new ladder making it easier to get down the mountain, villagers no longer had to worry about getting their products to the market. The orange trees that were planted in 2016 started becoming an important source of income for the villagers by 2019. There are also numerous greenhouses in the village where drip irrigation is used to grow ginseng rather than corn.
As cellular base stations have been built, the entire village is now covered by the 4G network, and people don't have to climb up to the top of the mountain just to get a signal anymore. Drones are used to replenish the medicine cabinet at the local clinic, with a round trip journey taking just ten minutes. There is even a preschool of comparable quality to those in the county's central town where the village's younger children can go for free while the older kids go to primary school off the mountain.
Meanwhile, the "cliff village" is becoming more and more famous as a tourist destination. In 2019, it received close to 100,000 visitors, and the villagers earned nearly a million yuan in income by selling snacks and souvenirs at shops and providing food and lodging. Within four months of the steel ladder being built, six young women from elsewhere had married into the village, a testament to its new appeal. Overjoyed, Mou'se Jiri said, "There will be more and more weddings in the future!" A skilled and agile climber from Atulie'er named Mou'se Labo has become an online celebrity. The short-form videos he posts get tens of millions of views.
When they moved down the mountain, Mou'se Dati and others only brought a few simple belongings with them like clothes and bedding. Just a few dozen kilometers away, their fully equipped new homes were waiting for them with everything they needed. The next step was for the local authorities to encourage more people to move down from the cliffs through means such as linking newly-added cropland quotas with the amount of land used for construction, while preserving a portion of the old buildings in the village for the purpose of developing tourism.
From rattan and steel ladders to the stairs of new homes, the path upward for the "cliff village" has kept growing broader and smoother. At the same time, thousands of poor villages like it across the country are also embarking on their own new paths.
People from the "cliff village" climb down the mountainside along the steel ladder as they prepare to move into new homes, May 13, 2020. PHOTO BY XINHUA REPORTER JIANG HONGJING
Behind these changes is the solemn promise of the CPC represented by General Secretary Xi Jinping: "The moderately prosperous society that we build must benefit each and every one of us. On the road to common prosperity, we must leave no one behind. We will mobilize the might of the whole Party and the entire nation to see that our tasks in eradicating poverty are completed, and that we honor this commitment."
Since the 18th CPC National Congress, the CPC Central Committee has guided officials and the public in constantly working for meticulous, thorough, and effective implementation of the policy of targeted poverty alleviation and eradication. Officials at every level have signed pledges to complete their tasks in fighting poverty, creating a framework under which each performs their function and fulfills their duty.
No effort or expense has been spared to ensure that there is ample funding and manpower for the campaign. The assistance provided has been tailored to the needs of individual villages, households, and people, and followed the approach of helping people acquire the tools to help themselves rather than just giving them handouts. The strength, ingenuity, and determination of the entire nation have been mobilized, bringing society together in a concerted effort to win this fight.
Feng Huan, a university graduate who returned home to start a business, runs Tan sheep around a track for exercise at a pasture in the town of Huamachi, Yanchi County, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, May 27, 2019. PHOTO BY XINHUA REPORTER WANG PENG
After moving out of her old mud and stone house deep in the Kunlun Mountains in Xinjiang, Risalat Litip stood in front of her new home and marveled at her new life. Her new brick house was impervious to the wind and rain, and when she needed water, all she had to do was turn on the tap. She said, "I used to be so afraid of getting ill because we lived in such a remote place, but it's not a big worry anymore. I am not sick as often as I used to be because I now have a healthier lifestyle, and besides the clinic is just a stone's throw from my door."
Over the last five years, thanks to roughly 600 billion yuan in funding, close to 10 million poor people from 22 provinces just like Risalat Litip have moved from inhospitable lands in remote mountainous areas to new homes.
"Hello auntie! Hello uncle!" The voices of children rang out at the preschool in Jiebanada Village, Zhaojue County, Liangshan Prefecture. Despite living in the heart of this prefecture dominated by the Yi minority, these three- and four-year-olds spoke Chinese with a standard accent. Lack of education has made it difficult for locals to escape the curse of poverty here, but this barrier is currently being broken down by the younger generation. As of September 15, 2020, the number of students across China that have dropped out of school in the compulsory stage has decreased from 600,000 to just 2,419, with the number of dropouts from registered poor families falling from 200,000 to zero.
In Kelan County, Shanxi Province, Wang Sannu was relocated from her old adobe house into a new apartment. She has suffered from rheumatic heart disease and high blood pressure for the greater part of her life, but now she has frequent visits with a family doctor who makes house calls and brings her medicine. She had two hospital stays in 2019 that cost a total of 8,914.3 yuan, but after being reimbursed by her medical insurance, she only paid 525.77 yuan out of pocket. Now nearing her seventies, she said, "We are so fortunate to live during this wonderful time."
Wang is just one ordinary example of the 15 million poor people with severe and chronic illnesses that have received treatment since the campaign to eradicate poverty began. This is owed to efforts to ensure that every village has a clinic and a doctor, but even more so to the expansion of the medical insurance system, which now covers the entire rural poor population.
Even more changes are reflected in deceptively dull figures: more than 500,000 km of rural roads have been built or rebuilt in impoverished areas, and where conditions permit, all villages have been connected to paved roads; the rural power grid has reached 99% reliability; 98% of villages in deeply impoverished areas have access to broadband internet; and 25.22 million people benefit from subsistence allowances. Stubborn problems that have made it difficult for people in poor areas to travel, get electricity, attend school, access medical attention, and communicate with the world for so long have finally been fully resolved.
Every kilowatt of power, every stretch of road, and every length of network cable ultimately puts money into the pockets of ordinary people. Per-capita net income among registered poor households nationwide rose from 3,416 yuan in 2015 to 9,808 yuan in 2019, representing an annual growth of 30.2%.
Through all of our hard work, we now have a golden key to unlock the shackles of poverty that have kept our country trapped for millennia.
Pastures of prosperity
In recent years, the people on the southern edge of the Mu Us desert have all come to know of a certain "dark horse" in the race to moderate prosperity. The news that a registered poor household had made 200,000 yuan raising sheep was at first just gossip within Yanchi County, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, but soon this geographically important place turned into a front-page story nationwide. In 2018, Yanchi County, with its vast and dry desert grasslands, became the first county in the region to exit poverty.
Yanchi County has an arid climate and a fragile ecosystem. When times were hardest, every mouthful of bread eaten by the people there was subsidized by the state. When the targeted poverty alleviation campaign was launched at the end of 2013, the poverty rate in the county was as high as 23%, and its poor population was close to 33,000.
So how did this destitute place turn around? Sheep!
As the trademark product of the region, the meat of Yanchi's Tan sheep is both delicious and healthy. The locals are experts at raising sheep, having herded them for centuries.
In the past, however, the sheep didn't have much value.
Due to low output and high sensitivity to the market, Tan sheep couldn't sell for a good price despite being an excellent product. Thinking back on sheep prices in 2015, Li Zixin from Xinquanjing Village in Yanchi County still breaks out in a cold sweat: "I've never seen the market for mutton as bad as it was that year. Many farmers lost so much money that they had to leave the business."
Cao Jun, head of the agricultural and rural affairs office in Yanchi County, said, "We need to aim for the medium to high end of the market and work to constantly raise brand recognition and added value, with the ultimate goal of making Tan mutton regarded as a rare delicacy."
In 2016, Yanchi County set up a strategic system for developing the brand, dialed up support through funding, made the business more organized and standardized, and put heavy focus on high-tech breeding methods. Yanchi Tan mutton even made it onto dining tables at the 2016 G20 Summit in Hangzhou and the 2017 BRICS Leaders' Meeting in Xiamen.
In just a few years, the price of Yanchi Tan mutton has doubled, and now more than 80% of the income of poor households in the county comes from this and other specialty industries.
Alleviating poverty by developing local industries is an important approach to winning the war against poverty that President Xi Jinping has repeatedly emphasized. On October 23, 2018, during a visit to Lianzhang Village in Qingyuan, Guangdong Province, he said that this is the most direct and effective approach, and that it will boost the capacity of impoverished areas to sustain themselves and help people find employment where they live over the long term. On July 15, 2019 at Ma'anshan Village in Chifeng, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, President Xi once again stressed that industries are the foundation of development, and that local people would only see steady growth in their incomes when industries thrived.
Under the guidance of the government and with the support of society, market mechanisms and industrial factors have been channeled to the poorest places.
Where technology was lacking, research was launched. For example, in Lancang County, Yunnan Province, the "farmer academician" Zhu Youyong has planted crops using cutting edge science and technology. Cooperation between eastern and western regions on alleviating poverty with science and technology has helped solve a whole series of tough technical challenges.
Where industrial chains were incomplete, they were supplemented with the necessary links. Highland barley from Tibet and Qinghai grows in high altitude areas. It is high in quality, and good for reducing blood sugar. Focusing on building a health-conscious brand, local growers have formed complete industrial chains for producing, processing, and selling highland barley.
Where businesses were missing, efforts were made to find good matches. In Lankao County, Henan Province, a number of companies suited to local development were brought in, including some listed companies. Industries started growing and within three years, more than 70,000 people had been lifted out of poverty.
Where talent was in short supply, skilled personnel were called up. Since the launch of the campaign against poverty, more than 4,100 groups of technical experts have been formed and 260,000 consultants have been hired from places across the country to guide industry development.
Specialty products from impoverished areas like walnuts from Xinjiang, prickly pears from Guizhou, peppercorns from Sichuan, and olives from Gansu have exploded, while poverty alleviation through the development of local industries, e-commerce, solar power generation, and tourism has advanced rapidly.
Azitan Village in Zho'nyin County, Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture glows green, August 12, 2020. It now has left poverty behind. PHOTO BY XINHUA REPORTER XING GUANGLI
The belief that the ground can turn to gold as long as we are confident is now becoming a reality. More than 90% of the registered poor population is receiving support through industry and employment-focused poverty alleviation, with two-thirds mainly relying on working elsewhere or going into business to escape poverty. The proportion of income earned from wages and business profits is increasing, while the proportion from transfer payments by the central government is decreasing with each passing year, which means that people are steadily becoming better able to lift themselves out of poverty. Under President Xi's directive to manage all aspects of economic and social development in impoverished areas with a view to fighting poverty, flows of people, goods, funding, and information have been stepped up in order to provide these areas with the energy they need to develop.
Development is the fundamental path out of poverty, and new prospects for impoverished areas to become "pastures of prosperity" like Yanchi County are slowly unfolding.
With the expansion of industries, impoverished areas have seen significant increases in economic vigor and developmental momentum. Meanwhile, clear environmental improvements have been made in these areas through measures such as environmentally- focused poverty alleviation, relocating people from inhospitable areas, and returning farmland to forest and grassland. Poor people also have many more channels through which they can find employment and increase their incomes, and basic public services are getting better and better. In poor counties, GDP is growing at an annual rate that is more than two percentage points higher than the national average, which means that the development gap is gradually shrinking.
In recent years, Yanchi County has also seen major environmental improvements as the Tan sheep are now being raised in pens and efforts are being made to protect the forests and grasslands. The area of pastureland and the vegetation coverage rate have both increased significantly. Not only has Yanchi shaken off the designation of being poor, it has also been praised as one of the top counties in China for nationwide greening efforts.
"Look, an eagle!" said one of the locals. Many wild creatures that vanished from this place have now returned.
Reaching prosperity depends on the performance of officials
As the sky darkened, drops of mist hung in the air. He Poyi from Ekeluo Village had just gotten home from working in the corn fields when he heard knocking at his door. The visitor was Zhu Peirong, vice president of the social sciences federation of Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture, Yunnan Province. Mr. Zhu also worked in another capacity as head of the relocation team for this section of the village. This was his fourth visit, and it was always for the same reason – he wanted to convince He Poyi to move.
As one of the most deeply impoverished areas in the country, Nujiang Prefecture is a place dominated by cavernous valleys where going out meant sliding along cables and where planting crops meant hanging off of mountainsides. He Poyi's home was situated on a mountain at an elevation of 2,000 meters. It was hard for him to get around, and even harder to earn more income. All he could do to make a living for his family was grow vegetables, raise chickens, and do a few odd jobs. Despite this, he felt a deep attachment to his home, and whenever the topic of moving was brought up he refused.
In an effort to clear up the misgivings of locals and get started on relocations that would break the roots of poverty, Nujiang Prefecture formed 15 "backpacker work teams" that went to the villages to talk with the locals. The team led by Zhu Peirong was one of these. They would often have to walk dozens of kilometers on mountain paths before finding every last house, and frequently helped out with farm work as they performed their tasks. They carried with them not just the gear on their backs, but also their sense of responsibility for seeing the relocation policy through.
He Poyi felt uneasy about moving. "Once I leave the mountain I'll have lots of things I need to buy but no money. What then?" Zhu took out bilingual documents in standard Chinese and the local Lisu language that talked about the policy and showed floor plans of housing at the relocation area. Speaking in the Lisu dialect, he went through the policy with He Poyi, saying, "In the relocation area there are public benefit jobs available at poverty alleviation workshops, you can choose any one you like!"
After thinking for a good while, He Poyi finally agreed to go down the mountain and take a look. He was ultimately convinced once he was standing in front of his bright and spacious new home, to which he immediately got the key. Not long after, his wife was hired for a public benefit job as a sanitation worker.
The transformation is truly heartening. During the 13th Five-Year Plan period (2016-2020), the 95,859 people in Nujiang Prefecture designated for relocation under national plans were all moved to new homes.
Zhu says, "Through the mud on our shoes, the sweat on our brows, and the passion in our hearts, we Party members and officials have helped make the lives of poor people better. All our efforts are worth it!"
This sense of duty can be traced back to a particular source. In November 2015, the CPC Central Committee held a conference on poverty alleviation and development at Jingxi Hotel in Beijing, with the entire Standing Committee of the Political Bureau in attendance. During the meeting, 22 provincial-level leaders signed pledges on the fight against poverty, and promised the CPC Central Committee that they would get the job done.
President Xi has always maintained the perspective that reaching prosperity depends on the performance of officials, and has said, "We should make it a priority to assign a batch of outstanding young officials and college graduates that are sound in their thinking, conduct, and capacity to work in poor villages."
Since the launch of the campaign against poverty, a total of 255,000 work teams have been dispatched to villages, while more than 2.9 million officials from state-owned enterprises, state-owned institutions, and Party and government offices at the county level or above have been assigned as first secretaries or village-stationed officials to poor villages or villages with administrative deficiencies.
President Xi has also often provided advice to officials engaged in poverty alleviation on how they should go about their work: officials must immerse themselves in the villages where they are assigned and genuinely devote themselves to working hard alongside the locals. They must not be satisfied with superficial efforts, work in fits and starts without following through, or pursue secretive and opaque designs.
In a battle such as this where there are tough challenges that must be faced, it would be impossible to succeed without strict discipline and a solid style of work. President Xi has stressed that we must not make showy displays for the sake of appearances. We must put the most rigorous checks and assessments in place, carry out inspections and oversight, and hold those responsible for laxity and fraud to account.
A solid style of work has been tempered on the front lines of the fight against poverty. Young officials have developed quickly through practical experience, grasping the situation at the primary level and learning how to work with the public.
The shoes of officials are worn from all the mountain roads they have walked, and their notebooks are filled with records of their kindhearted deeds. Many have kept working selflessly despite spending long stretches away from home, many have persisted through illness to remain at their posts, and some have even laid down their lives in the cause to defeat poverty.
Speaking at a symposium on securing a decisive victory in the fight against poverty held in March 2020, President Xi said: "We have used Party development as a means to promote poverty alleviation, primary-level Party organizations in poor areas have been strengthened, and primary-level officials have significantly improved their ability to identify poverty and provide targeted assistance. This has consolidated the foundations of governance by the Party in rural areas."
Nowadays, many members of the " backpacker work teams" have become villagers' most trusted friends. These top-notch officials and guides on the road to prosperity have earned the sincere praise of the public.
The best days yet to come
If you asked Dong Nu from Tianduo Village, Luqu County, Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Gansu Province to pick the moment when he truly merged into modern life, he would tell you that it was when he finally got to use a clean toilet and shower. "The hot water is there as soon as you turn it on, and flushing the toilet is as easy as pushing a button. It's just like living in the city!" he said.
Just a few years ago, even this simple comfort was beyond his imagination. In his pastoral village, there were deeply ingrained habits that led to a dirty, disorderly, and dilapidated environment. Garbage could be seen everywhere, people lived with their livestock, and everything was covered in muck, not only outdoors but in homes as well.
Secretary of the Gannan Prefectural CPC Committee Yu Chenghui said, "As we work to eliminate poverty, we cannot just put up new houses while people keep living in the same ways and the same conditions with the same outlook on life as before. What we need to do is use the fight against poverty as an inflection point to stimulate the people in persistently pursuing a better life."
In 2015, Gannan Prefecture launched an "environmental revolution," covering everything from grassland conservation to kitchen cleanup. One would frequently see officials that had been assigned from higher-level offices using tongs to pick up garbage, setting an example for the locals. Sometimes an official smoking a cigarette would toss the butt, only to turn back and put it in their pocket after coming to their senses. Over the span of a few years, the amount of garbage on the Gannan grasslands was reduced, and the fresh smell of grass once again filled the air. Local herders said, "Even when a strand of sheep's wool falls to the ground we can't help but pick it up."
President Xi says, "We must use the philosophy of promoting the well-rounded growth of people to guide our poverty alleviation and development efforts."
On February 11, 2018, the eve of Chinese New Year, President Xi visited Sanhe Village in Zhaojue County, Liangshan Prefecture, Sichuan Province and conveyed his greeting to the people there. As they sat around the fire pit, a villager belonging to the Yi ethnic group told the President that before when she had been ill, she always believed that she was being possessed by a ghost. But later the village officials told her that the "ghost" was really germs that came from a lack of hygiene, and that if she just changed her habits she wouldn't fall ill so often.
After hearing her story, President Xi quipped that there had in fact been "ghosts" haunting her: those of ignorance, backwardness, and poverty. But now that these problems had been resolved and people were better educated, conscious of the importance of hygiene, and living more comfortable lives, these "ghosts" had naturally been driven away.
Nowadays, villagers are getting into the tourism and homestay businesses, and they compete with each other for whose courtyards and streets are the cleanest. Since being relocated into town from deep in the mountains, they have learned to use toilets, and they no longer spit or toss their garbage anywhere they please. They have also been given vocational training, and have learned everything from the culinary arts to the importance of punctuality, following the rules, and being polite by saying "please" and "thank you." This whole series of skills, put together in packaged form, has served as a remedial lesson in the common knowledge and courtesy needed for modern life.
While lifestyles need to change, the impoverished mindset is the "ghost" that really needs to be driven away. People used to think they could lie about and wait for prosperity to come to them, but this is changing. Now they would rather put in hard work than spend more hard years waiting. The courage to think, to act, and to follow a dream has become rooted in the hearts of our poor citizens.
At a meeting to expound the spirit of the 19th National Congress of the CPC held in Yangfang Village, Taijiang County, Guizhou Province, Wu Shuigen, who had attended the congress as a representative, said something that drew enthusiastic applause from the officials and members of the public in attendance: "If you lie underneath a tree and wait for the fruit to fall, then you will go hungry. You need to reach out and pick it yourself. The same goes for making it out of poverty. If you stand by watching and waiting for others to help you, then you will never become prosperous."
In Nyainrong County, Tibet Autonomous Region, a humble captain of a construction team named Chi Jia became a model in the push to leave poverty behind by leading locals in setting up a migrant labor company. The company trains registered poor members of the surplus labor force and helped them escape poverty by relocating for work.
In southern Xinjiang, Mahrup Murapa and his family of five have started a new life since they were relocated from their former home deep in the Kunlun Mountains. Since the move, his three children have gone through the biggest changes. His wife Ranagul Karman said emotionally, "Since leaving the mountains, my kids have had the chance to interact with more people and gain a broader perspective. Now one of them wants to join the army, and another wants to be a doctor. These are dreams I never heard them talk about before."
In this sweeping and intense campaign against poverty, more and more people are finding the strength to change their lot in life, and understanding for themselves what President Xi meant in the following powerful statement: "Shaking off poverty is only the first step. The best days are yet to come."
(Originally appeared in Qiushi Journal, Chinese edition, No. 1, 2021)