The bare, plaster walls of Yu Zu’en’s new government-issued apartment are adorned with three decorations: An old photo from his years as a soldier, a shelf for his harmonica, and a poster featuring the busts of every Chinese Communist Party Secretary since Chairman Mao. He points to the newest one and smiles.
“I wouldn’t be here without Xi Jinping,” he says. “Under his wise leadership, we’re now taken care of. Before, we barely survived. Our village was up in the mountains. Corn didn’t grow well, no roads. Then the leaders mobilized us and the entire village moved here.”
As a tribute, he reaches for his harmonica. The 84-year-old Korean War veteran belts out “The East Is Red,” shutting his one good eye in concentration. He lost the other one in 1951, when American planes bombed his battalion’s position in North Korea, nearly killing him.
After the war Yu returned home to China’s poorest province — Guizhou, in the country’s southwest, where a tenth of the population falls below China’s poverty line. Since then he’s managed to survive on a terraced plot of corn in a mountainous village whose name hinted at its inaccessibility: Above-the-Dragon.
But in May, the government declared Above-the-Dragon village impoverished. Nobody there was making more than $1.17 a day, China’s official poverty line. So the government offered them new homes at Bright Field New Village, a housing project made up of dozens of white apartment blocks topped with red Spanish roof tiles on the outskirts of Guiyang, a metropolis of 4 million and the capital of Guizhou.
Just months ago, 45-year-old transplant Qin Huamei lived in a mud home, where she had to fetch water each morning from the village well. Now it flows whenever she turns on the tap inside her two-bedroom apartment.
“Life here is much better than my hometown, but now I need money to pay for my food,” says Qin. “Before, we just ate what we grew.”
But a disposable income will require a job, and the ones on offer here, like street cleaning, aren’t enticing to Qin. She’s holding out for something better, motioning to the new technological park being constructed across the street from the public housing complex.
China’s government hopes city life will push tens of millions into the workforce on their way to joining the world’s largest middle class. In the first five years of Xi’s presidency, more than 60 million Chinese have risen above the poverty line; Xi wants to move 70 million more Chinese above that line within the next three years, a goal China’s government is more tightly focused on than ever.
“I think they have fundamentally changed the way they doing things, and there’s just so much more money flowing through the system,” says Sarah Rogers, a research fellow at the University of Melbourne.
Rogers, who made China’s poverty alleviation the focus of her thesis, says that under President Xi, China’s government has transformed how it tackles the issue. One big change has been evaluating local officials not just on GDP growth, but on how well they alleviate poverty.
“You’ve got a particular target for poverty alleviation,” says Rogers. “If you don’t meet that, you’re in a bit of trouble.”
And officials in Guizhou are looking to avoid trouble — they plan to move more than 750,000 people off of farms by the end of the year from nearly 3,600 villages.
Hours away from a decent road in the province and tucked into a narrow valley between steep mountains is the village of Changba, far to the east of Guiyang, where farmers thresh the autumn rice harvest in wooden boxes as the sun begins to set behind the mountains. Farmer Dang Xiaosi, 38, wipes sweat off his forehead and says he’s ready to move.
“I’ve been wanting to leave for a while,” chuckles Dang. “I’m just waiting for them to get their ducks in a row, and I’ll move when they tell me to.”
Dang already is thinking about the housing project he’ll be moved to, city life, and the new expenses he’ll have there. He asks me for a favor: “Tell the government not to charge us for electricity” he says. “You journalists can do that. They won’t listen to us villagers.”
I tell Dang there’s less of a chance of it working if a foreign journalist makes a request like that. He nods his head. Once the government moves him to his new home, he reminds himself, he’ll be on his own.