Gui Jiayin, in his 30s, is a construction worker in Zhejiang Province for most of the year, and he has now returned to his hometown in Badong County, Hubei Province for Chinese New Year. Formerly he lived in a remote mountain village 30 kilometers from the site of his family’s new apartment in Qingfanyuan Community. His mother lives here during the year, and his younger brother and two sisters (who are all married) are elsewhere. Gui is presently unmarried. Social welfare benefits are clearly posted on the wall for his mother’s benefit.
The apartment shows signs of becoming a home: Gui received it only with painted walls, but he bought furniture and paid for the wood-pattern linoleum flooring. Given that they just moved into the apartment in October 2019, he and his family are losing no time settling in. Without the government-funded resettlement program for poor villagers, his family would have been subsistence farmers in mountainous Hubei, growing rice and other crops for their own consumption.
Many residents in Qingfanyuan Community continue farming. Considering the local mountainous topography, farming in Badong County is usually done on the hillsides. Although there is no formal access to hillsides, those who still farm stack rocks on the other side of the fence to give themselves an easier time hopping over it to maintain the rows of crops they are growing on the hillsides. I noticed that it is largely older people, the youngest of whom are in their late 50s, who work on the hillsides and live in the community.
Pace of Change
When I came to Badong County to gather stories on poverty alleviation, I wanted to find stories of the majority of farmer-turned migrant workers being able to move back to live in the countryside again. Many Americans know the story of the “left-behind children” whose parents had to take salaried jobs in other cities, whether factory or construction labor. The Industrial Revolution is one of the two biggest shifts in human history, the other being the shift from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a settled agrarian one. In the face of a civilizational transformation ongoing worldwide for the last 200 years, how could I expect poverty alleviation and rural development efforts over the past 10 to 20 years to have instant results?
Although I didn’t see exactly what I envisioned, I was not disappointed. With the paving of mountain roads, the establishment of salaried jobs raising cash crops and the construction of bridges across the Yangtze River gorges, the fruits of the Industrial Revolution are being shared with people in Badong County. Those who stay in this area have radically improved lives and those who must work elsewhere have similarly improved connections with home, being able to keep in contact over the internet and personally visit more often. While moving back to the countryside might be a starry-eyed ideal, rural revitalization is vital work, and it is happening in Badong County.
Chen Kaishun, a lifelong resident of Yangrushan Village and manager of the village’s tea garden, gave an overview of how rural living has changed. The tea garden was developed with assistance from Zhaohui Sub-district of Xiacheng District, Zhejiang Province’s Hangzhou City.
The roads in and out of the village were paved with concrete in 2012 and planting of tea trees on the terraced hillsides began in 2013. Before 2013, the hillsides were used for subsistence farming of rice. Chen stated that before the roads were paved, local villagers would go to the county seat perhaps once a year, and it would take an entire day to go and return. Now, people can go and come three times in a day thanks to more convenient transportation. Most families have at least one motorcycle, and many even have cars, not to mention agricultural machinery.
Paved roads mean that heavier loads can come in and out more regularly. That means regular fuel resupply, which supports sustained use of modern agricultural machinery. Using modern farming equipment would be impossible without fuel. Chen stated that the nearest gas station was eight kilometers away; residents can top up at their convenience. Machines can work harder and longer than agricultural animals, requiring neither rest nor the long time necessary to breed replacement animals. Chen also noted the implications for family visits: it is easier for villagers working in other cities and children at boarding schools up to 12 kilometers away to return to the village for family reunions during the Chinese New Year holiday.
Chen indicated that half of the 2,200 residents of Yangrushan Village work outside the village, with about 400 working outside Badong County and some 700 working in the county. If moving everyone “home” to Yangrushan Village is specifically a goal, it doesn’t look like that is happening right away. However, the dramatic upgrading of road infrastructure makes it much easier for students and laborers working outside the village to come back for Chinese New Year and other holidays. Some students and migrant workers didn’t even come home because the time and energy spent coming to visit made the effort too bothersome, Chen explained.
As I came to see the reality of life in the countryside, I understood that realistic development required genuine economic foundations. “Jobs” can’t be invented out of thin air; they must satisfy genuine demand. At a warehouse for Badong Nong’erdai E-Commerce Co., Ltd., I saw a concrete step in the right direction. Some female workers were packing boxes full of oranges to ship all over China. I read labels for Tianjin, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chongqing, and Shenzhen. At the moment I visited, they were packing standard-size boxes, so workers could just slap labels on and ship the oranges. The orange planting industry is providing salaried jobs to help migrant workers begin to move back to their home villages.
The women packing the oranges were mostly mothers. Before, some of them worked in other cities in factories or in construction. Orange packing from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the warehouse allows at least one parent to live in Badong County to take care of their children. Shi Changzhu, a 50-year-old mother, can earn 20,000 yuan (US$2,900) per year from packing oranges for the company. She has one child in college and the other in middle school, and this job allows her to take more direct care of her younger child.
High-speed internet and live streaming are another dimension of rural development. At Guanxi Seven Orange Company, a live-streaming demonstration of peeling and eating sublimely delectable blood oranges advertised local products. Modern e-commerce and online streaming videos are helping producers and consumers find each other, enabling demands from developed urban areas of China to drive economic development of less-developed rural areas.
Boxes of oranges are heavy, and the rugged mountains and the wide rivers including the Yangtze and its tributaries in Badong County make heavy cargoes difficult to transport. In the past, crossing a river might have taken a day for a very small amount of cargo: travel down the hill, find a ferry boat, load cargo onto the boat, cross the river, unload the boat, and then go up the other hill on the opposite shore. The Sidu River Bridge, once the highest of its kind in the world, takes literally one minute for a fully loaded truck to cross.
What the Future Holds
Gui Jiayin, working in construction in Zhejiang, may or may not desire to permanently move back to Badong County. He may or may not even know what he wants, in that respect. However, his mother has a modern apartment to live in, and he now does not have to travel to a remote mountainous area to visit her. Although the prohibition on the use of fireworks in some cities makes Chinese New Year feel a little less festive, the core of the holiday is sustained and even improved: reuniting with family and friends. The future never just arrives, delivering automatic improvement. It is always arriving, bringing whatever it has in hand. For Badong County, it looks like the future is bringing good things, step by step.