June 16, 2008

Intra-Country Culture Shock: A Journey to The Rural Countryside of China

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Far from the fluorescent lights of Shanghai and the history-laden streets of Beijing lies a starkly different China — a China where bicycles are more prevalent than cars and where private family homes with adjoining small farms are more common than sky-high apartment buildings. This is a China where crops are sown rather than items of clothing, and people reap profit from the land rather than from deals made behind mahogany office desks.
Western China, comprised of 10 rural provinces, is a sprawling and largely undeveloped geographic region where the 23 percent — 283 million of the China’s 1.3 billion people population — live. It is where modernization is still in its nascent stages, if occurring at all, and farming, the profession of many residents, is the primary industry and main source of income.[img_assist|nid=30624|title=In the fields|desc=Farmers work in the Chinese province of Hubei. The agriculture industry employs more than 900 million Chinese people. Courtesy of Ivy Council|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
In our excursion to the western province of Hubei, the Ivy League Student Delegation, again, experienced a form of culture shock. Only this time, it was not from venturing from the Western Hemisphere to the East — it was from arriving in the subdued countryside straight from the crowded and highly developed urban metropolis of Beijing. In our visit, we stopped by the small town of Li Bu, a suburb of Jingzhou (the ancient city where we watched the Olympic torch ceremony). This town, which holds governing power over 12 surrounding villages, has a population of 32,800 people (about 10,700 households), many of whom are farmers.
One (of many) complexities of China is that each province is characterized with a distinct geography, culture and history. Recognizing that the economic development and cultural history of Hubei is not indicative of all rural life in China, Li Bu effectively served as a fascinating lens through which our delegation observed and internalized many characteristics of the underdeveloped countryside — both the challenges it faces with regards to the growing threat of pollution, and the progress it’s making in modernizing the agricultural business to keep pace with the rest of the nation’s industrial development.
The leading industry of Li Bu is vegetable farming, and according to the information supplied by our local guide, the vegetable planting area takes up 62.5 percent of the town’s cultivated area. The farm we visited harvest strange-looking green vegetables resembling cucumbers. Li Bu yields 230,000 tons of vegetables a year that are worth 240 million yuan ($34.7 million). The average annual income of the peasants in the “core area,” according to our guide, is 7,000 yuan ($1,014). And while this may seem low, it is actually significantly greater than the average annual income of the Li Bu peasant: 4,595 yuan ($665.89).
Our guide assured us that the farms in Li Bu use organic fertilizer combined with chemical fertilizer to ensure a safe vegetable base, as well as a number of physical techniques to control and prevent the spread of disease among farmers and their crops. However, national data reveal that China’s pollution has had a dramatic effect on the farming industry, which employs 900 million Chinese people — 75 percent of the country’s population.
Experts from the Discovery Channel reported that over 10 percent of China’s farmland, taking up a total of 24.7 million acres, has been ruined because of pollution. Heavy metals, for example, contaminate 12 million tons of grain each year, amounting to a loss of over 20 billion yuan ($2.6 million). The infamous cloud of smog that covers much of China is the direct result of its use of coal as a primary energy source. About 70 percent of China’s energy needs are met by burning coal, a cheap and readily available natural resource. The process of burning coal releases mercury — 2,000 tons of it — into the environment per year. It then seeps into the soil and water, contaminating crops and harming wildlife and humans. [img_assist|nid=30625|title=A stocked truck|desc=The vegetable industry is the leading industry of Li Bu, a town in the western Chinese province of Hubei. The town produces about 230,000 tons of fresh vegetables a year. Courtesy of Ivy Council|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
In addition to burning coal for energy, many vegetables are polluted by nitrate, a chemical present in some types of fertilizer. Further compounding China’s pollution problem are its waterways, up to 70 percent of which are contaminated, including 90 percent of all underground water sources. While the Chinese government has yet to complete a survey of soil pollution, it is expected to do so in the near future — an operation that will cost 1 billion yuan.
Walking through the vegetable farms of Li Bu was an incredible experience, but signified only a part of our visit to the countryside. The delegation also visited two peasant homes in the town of Li Bu and met the families who reside in them. Minimalist is the word I would choose to describe them. Hanging shirts, pants and dresses ornamented the front of the home as a clothing line stood in the front yard. A tiled exterior covered the façade, and the inside living space was sparsely furnished, yet spacious. After crossing through the common area and a child’s bedroom, which was peppered with plastic toys, we reached the back entrance of the home where we were greeted by a pig, whose pen was next door to the kitchen. You can guess what his fate was. A single line of toothbrushes above the sink signified the outside bathing area, which backed onto the kitchen with iron pots and pans and fresh vegetables above a dirt floor. A stench of farm filled the home, and it was dark, the thick walls blocking out much of the heat and sunlight from outside.
The peasant houses were varied in appearance and condition (wealthier residents had two-storied homes while poorer ones had single-story homes), but their primitive architecture and few amenities demonstrate the unrelenting gap between the rich and the poor in China.
According to Business Week, urban dwellers earned 3.2 times more than rural residents of China did in 2007, and the top 10 percent of urban Chinese earned 9.2 times as much as the bottom 10 percent. As a developing nation, however, the Chinese government has been formulating a plan to improve the quality of farmers’ lives, The China Daily
reported. For the first time, the China Banking Regulatory Commission has begun to alter rural banking policies by allowing foreign firms like HSBC and Citigroup Inc. to open branches in rural China to serve as banks and loan companies. In 2006, for example, HSBC set up its first bank in Suizhou, in Hubei Province, and Citigroup has plans to set up 10 rural banks this fall. [img_assist|nid=30626|title=Street view|desc=A typical residential street in Li Bu, a farming town in Western China. While the average annual income of Chinese farmers is on the rise, there is still a huge gap between the country’s urban and rural residents. Courtesy of Ivy Council|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
China’s booming economy offers a promising future for a nation that is still in a largely developmental phase. As the urban architecture becomes more and more futuristic, and the population of Chinese cities increases exponentially, witnessing the relatively stagnant state of the rural areas reveals the scope of work China has left to do. The Washington Post reported that as China’s many industries advance, the government is losing control over how the latest technological developments can be implemented throughout the countryside. As the diverse nation continues to advance socially and economically, hopefully the limitless pool of knowledge being channeled into China’s national growth can benefit the entire population by reducing the gap between the rich and the poor, and developing technology to improve the safety and well being of the farmers.