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'Hollow Villages' in Rural Areas

Resulting from a massive outflow of labor to city industries, an increasing number of rural villages in China have become desolate places with no skilled labor or income, plentiful idle land and loose administrative organization. These "hollow villages" and their fallout have become one of the major factors hampering the economic and social development of rural China.

Young men leave

During the busy farming season, the elders, and women and children are seen as the main labor force in fields across the east Chinese provinces of Jiangsu and Shandong and the central Chinese provinces of Hunan and Hubei.

"Since farming doesn't bring any profit these days, most of the young men leave home seeking jobs in the cities," 61-year-old Cao Sifu from Caofengzhai Village in Donge County, Shandong Province, said.

Statistics show that more than one fourth of the 40,000 residents of Chahe Township, Honghu City, Hubei Province, normally work away from home.

He Songjun, a farmer from Zuoyuan Village, Pingjiang County, Hunan Province, did some arithmetic: a one mu (1/15 of a hectare) field normally produces 450 kilograms of rice, which sells for 450 yuan (US$54.43) at the price of one yuan (US$0.12) per kilogram. The direct cost amounts to 350 yuan (US$42.34) including 250-yuan (US$30.24) expenditures on chemical fertilizers, seeds, pesticides, irrigation and other means of production and the 100-yuan (US$12.1) tax and fee. The one-year labor, which is excluded from the costing, on one mu field only makes a profit of 100 yuan. So farming isn't a viable income source (because the per-capita area of cultivated land for Hubei farmers is only 1.16 mu (Source: Hubei Farmers' Friends Network), he said.

"More than half of the 1,000 people in our village work away from home, leaving their children and fields to the old people. The old people often have to leave the fields idle because they are just too old," He said.

Jianli County in Hubei Province once had over 400,000 mu (26,666.67 hectares) of land - 24.2 percent of its total tillable fields - lying idle. Over 200,000 people of the county are migrant workers every year.

Villagers have left and land is now idle. However, high taxes and fees imposed on them by higher authorities are not delayed or remitted. Most "hollow villages" have no alternative but to raise loans to pay the taxes and fees. For instance, villages in Hubei Province's Luotian County at the foot of the impoverished Dabieshan Mountain once ran into a debt of 80 million yuan (US$9.68 million) in this way.

Lu Xinhua, Party secretary of Shuanghe Village, Chahe Township, said his village had debts for many years, accumulating to 2.02 million yuan (US$244,339) with annual interest of 180,000 yuan (US$21,772.8). Half of the village's over 800-people strong labor force remain working in other places.

In view of this drain, sold collective assets and exhausted village property, Shuanghe Village is now exactly worth the title of "hollow village".

House up, morality down

Pingjiang County of Hunan Province regularly has 156,000 farmers working as migrant workers in other places in the country.

Liu Baiping, a 65-year-old of Jinguang Villagers' Group (a villagers' group is the lowest-level autonomous organization in Chinese villages), Shi'ao Village, Wengjiang Township of the county, morosely looked out at the fields covered with weeds, and said: "Why do higher authorities not work out solutions for the problems of villages like this 'hollow old people's village' of ours. Nobody wants to be a village official, people's minds change year by year."

Jinguang Villagers' Group has 25 families with a total population of 96. The per capita farmland for the group is merely half a mu. Almost 40 group members including current leaders of the group are regular migrant workers seeking fortune far away. As the village let things drift, theft and gambling became more prevalent.

"Now people make more money from migrant working, build bigger houses, live better, but more and more of them lead decadent lives," said Liu Baiping. "The government is busy with issues of economic development and seldom bothers about considering the feelings of farmers. In recent years gambling has been increasingly popular. Villagers even rush to buy stakes of the ‘mark six' imported from Hong Kong. Hill men are honest and kind. Who ever heard of somebody losing something? But now, hogs and cattle and other livestock can be stolen if there is a little bit of negligence."

"Today some farmers have been blinded by lust for money. They have lost sense of what is right or wrong. If only it made money, theft and robbery could well be commended - as a kind of talent! " Liu Pangping, a farmer of the Wegjiang Township, said.

He Songjun appeals to government departments to give up merely pursuing economic benefits, intensify their work on morality and culture and avoid leaving any potential risks to rural areas for their future development.

Brain drain

Grass-roots offices in charge of public servant affairs have reported that the "migrant working economy" boost farmers' incomes and urban prosperity, but has also brought about many new economic and social problems for both rural development and the building of grass-roots administrative organizations.

The biggest problem however arises when some villages, and villagers' groups, cannot find ideal public servant nominees due to the serious brain drain, they will eventually and perpetually become paralyzed, they said.

Officials with the government of the Zhangtiansi Township, Gong'an County, Hubei Province, said with angst that they had often found there is a lack of public servant successors for villages and villagers' groups because most young and strong farmers have left home to be migrant workers.

It would be a pipe dream of building strong village-level organizations without proper countermeasure devised in the future, they said.

In Changxin Village, Zhangtiansi Township, approximately 300 out of the village's nearly 1,000 villagers are migrant workers, mostly aged 16-35 and educated. Among the 25 Party members in the village only 2 people are under the age of 40. Most educated and able young people are reluctant to stay home as public servants.

Xiao Xinjian, the Party branch secretary of Diping Village, Luotian County, said that his village lacks the ability to maintain public welfare such as flood control and disaster relief; moreover, half of the village's fields, fishponds, mountain groves and orchards lie idle because villagers seldom invest the money they make from migrant working in agricultural production; they would otherwise like to spend it on building houses and children's schooling.

"If the present situation continues it will threaten the sustainable development of rural areas," he said.

Xiao Chunming, a farmer of Diping Village, said that his people want to seek development in their hometown but the overall local environment and lack of capital, technology and human resources have restricted the scale of their business.

Yuan Zhongfei, the deputy mayor of Jiangdu City, Jiangsu Province, said that the major outflow of rural labor has inevitably impeded the popularization of modern technology and the building of grass-roots organizations in rural areas, hurting the rural economy and social stability. He said it's necessary to retain enough local talent in rural areas and persuade migrant workers to return to their hometowns with capital, techniques and development projects; cities shouldn't build their prosperity at the price of rural depression.

Agricultural experts of Hubei Province believe that rural areas have great development potential despite the comparatively low profitability of agriculture.

Their research reveals that in Hubei Province, over 70 million mu (4.67 million hectares) mountain grassland and 2 million mu (133,333.33 hectares) water areas which could be used for aquiculture (the cultivation of freshwater and marine resources, both plant and animal) now remain undeveloped; 30 million mu (2 million hectares) low-yield fields still wait to be reclaimed; only less than 10 percent of the stalks annually produced in the province receive processing. It is estimated that the province could gain an added value of 100 billion yuan (US$12.1 million) from processing the crops it produces.

These agricultural resources have lain idle for years, constituting an enormous waste. The task of top priority at the moment is to formulate and take feasible measures to attract capital, human resources and technology back into rural areas and agriculture and cultivate rural public servants to become the backbone of rural development, they said.

(China.org.cn by Chen Chao, July 20, 2003)

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