Chinese Poor Face Mass Move


By Rupert Winfield Hayes

March 9, 2003

China has announced a massive plan to move more than seven million people out of the country's most poverty-stricken regions. Under the plan, up to half a million people will be moved every year for the next 10 to 20 years. Despite 10 years of double-digit economic growth in China, nearly 30 million Chinese people remain below the poverty line and the gap between China's richest and poorest is now amongst the widest in Asia, if not the world. The government has tried moving people out of poor areas before, but this new scheme dwarfs all previous attempts. A quarter of the 30 million Chinese people still mired in poverty will be uprooted and moved to areas where they have a better chance of improving their lot.

Starting from scratch

In many ways, it makes sense. Many of China's poorest live in areas where development is hopeless, where the top soil has long turned to desert or where precipitous mountains make access to the outside world all but impossible. But moving such a large number of people carries huge problems of its own. For a start, where will they be moved to? All of the good land in China is already thoroughly occupied, and moving them into urban areas will require retraining on a massive scale if they are to have any hope of adjusting. And in the past, such relocation projects have become mired in corruption. China is currently in the middle of relocating more than one million people from the site of the massive Three Gorges Dam. That scheme has been plagued by embezzlement of relocation funds by local officials.

Rural neglect

The Chinese Government's apparent determination to push ahead with such a mammoth project indicates just how seriously it now takes the issue of rural poverty. For the last 10 years, China's rural areas have largely been ignored as the government has concentrated on breakneck development of China's cities and coastal areas. That has led to a yawning wealth gap between the cities and the countryside and growing discontent among China's millions of rural poor. In his last speech to China's parliament this week, outgoing Prime Minister Zhu Rongji said the government must do more to raise living standards of the rural poor if it is to maintain social stability.

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