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  • The End of Poverty in China:A tale of two villages
  • Josh Freedman (bio)

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The party secretary of Shuangwen, a village strewn across hillsides in China's Hunan province, is keen to talk about cars. At present there are about 60 among the village's 300 households, but he expects that by 2020 every family will have its own private vehicle. Automobiles are a marker of the town's growth, he says. [End Page 115]

A few hillsides over, the party secretary of Youma village does not talk about cars. Instead he wants to discuss roads and the fact that much of his village still does not have them. "The biggest wish of people here is for paved roads," he explains. "If we fix the roads, all of the rest of our development will be easier."

Yet Youma's residents have little hope of finding enough money to build the roads that could revive their village. Although it is among the poorest villages in China, Youma appears destined to miss out on much of the poverty-alleviation funding allocated for local projects. Unlike Shuangwen, Youma has not been designated a "poverty village" and as such does not fit cleanly into higher-level plans to lift tens of millions of people out of absolute poverty.

The divergent fortunes of these two villages are connected to the overall strategy of poverty alleviation in China. Identifying and targeting "poverty counties," "poverty villages," and "poverty households" has been central to the system of government-driven programs for more than 30 years. These policies have vaulted many villages into higher income brackets but left others struggling to catch up.

Shuangwen is one of the success stories. The party secretary drives his car up a winding road, through pine forests and not-yet-mature tea fields recently carved into the slopes, to the top of a mountain ridge. At the turn in the bend are piles of dirt, scaffolding, and the skeletons of 48 identical structures that will soon take shape as homes for relocated villagers.

Past the road, tree-covered hills fade into craggy peaks that appear blue in the sunlight. It is a stunning mountain scene, but the village secretary is more interested in showcasing the houses under construction. Each will have a garage, he points out. Next to the first row of homes, there will also be a large parking lot, just in case the number of vehicles in the village continues to exceed expectations.

Shuangwen is on schedule to officially eliminate poverty by the end of 2017—three years ahead of the central government's ambitious 2020 deadline to end absolute poverty across the country. The new housing is part of an effort to relocate villagers to more economically viable areas, one of many localized projects under the rubric of the national poverty-alleviation campaign. Here, the identical houses will be filled by families whose homes are currently scattered along nearby hillsides. Although many relocation projects in China are synonymous with forced or even violent removals, the secretary says that villagers here favor the plan, which will populate the homes through a lottery system. After all, unlike other projects that uproot people's livelihoods, the villagers in this case will remain close enough to their current land that they can continue to live as before, only with better access to services, more convenient transportation, and a sense of community among their neighbors.

Some villagers immediately signed on; others, skeptical of leaving their homes, were hesitant. But after the plan began to take shape, a growing number embraced it. "They're not going to understand anything abstract," the secretary says to me. "You have to show them results, how they can have better lives."

The pitch seems to have worked. Shen Yongbiao, a local tea entrepreneur, tells me later, "Replacing old houses with new ones in a better environment allows villagers to see the development that is happening." Policymakers often talk about rebuilding rural China, and now people like Shen have tangible evidence of progress.

Meanwhile, life struggles along in Youma. The village center, if you can call it that, is a cluster of...


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pp. 115-121
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