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Funds for Poor Areas to Surge This Year

The central government is to invest 12.2 billion yuan (US$1.4 billion) in poverty relief programs this year, an increase of 800 million yuan (US$96 million) from previous years, say sources at the Poverty Reduction Office of the State Council.

Also, local governments will provide 3 billion yuan (US$360 million) in funding support for the programs.

Combined government funding for anti-poverty programs has been at a record high during the past few years, a representative from the office said.

At the end of 2003, China had 29 million people below the poverty line in rural China.

Their per-capita annual income was below 637 yuan (US$77) a year.

However, the figure saw a significant decrease from the 250 million people below the poverty line in 1977, according to a United Nations report issued last month.

China's official investment in development projects in rural China increased from 24.8 billion yuan (US$3 billion) in 2000 to 29.9 billion yuan (US$3.6 billion) in 2003, according to a white paper China issued earlier this year.

The financial input was used to improve production conditions for agriculture and animal husbandry in poor areas, to widen compulsory education and eliminate illiteracy, to train farmers in practical technology, to prevent and cure endemic diseases and to provide potable water for people and animals.

Information and communication technologies (ICT) are expected to benefit more Chinese farmers in the future, as they have proved successful in helping farmers become more financially viable in the past three years.

Assisted by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), China's ministries of commerce and science and technology in February 2001 initiated a project to alleviate poverty through ICT in poor counties of Chongqing Municipality, and Hebei, Anhui, Henan and Shaanxi provinces.

The project, centered around farming services on the Internet, has played an active role in upgrading farmers' skills and increasing incomes during the past three years, Wang Zhe, an official of the Ministry of Science and Technology, said at an international workshop over the weekend.

In the village of Wu'an in Hebei Province, for example, farmer Li Suotian received continually updated market information. He found out that Israeli breeds of tomatoes sold well in Hebei. He then grew more than 1 mu (0.07 hectares) of tomatoes and obtained an annual income of 3,500 yuan (US$421) from them. That income was eight times his normal income from grain growing.

Wang said the Ministry of Science and Technology will allocate more funds to expand the ICT project in other poverty-hit areas of the country.

"In the future, the technology information service will be sustained as a community-based, lifelong study service to upgrade the labor skills of the rural population," he said.

Toshihiro Tanaka, deputy resident representative of the UNDP in China, attributes the project's success to the information technology which is well-tailored to meet farmers' needs.

Tanaka visited Shaanxi last year. He said he was deeply impressed by a woman doctor there who finds website information about the prevention of infectious diseases and uses it to teach farmers how to care for their health.

He said he believed cooperation between the UNDP and China's government ministries would one day finally realize the goal of alleviating poverty.

In an interview with China Daily, Yu Zhide, an information coordinator from Yuyang in Shaanxi Province attending the workshop, said ICT has greatly enriched farmers and broadened their horizons.

"Some farmers had never seen computers before the ICT project was started... Now they know a lot more about the outside world," he said.

Yu is a primary school teacher in Yuyang. In his spare time, he teaches farmers how to access Internet-based farming services.

Farmers from his hometown learned much information about the raising and selling of pigs, he said.

More than 62 percent of China's 1.3 billion population reside in poor rural areas.

The further spread of information technology is important to narrow the gap between the country's better developed eastern areas and the relatively poor western areas, Wang said.

According to Zhao Chunjiang, director of the Research Center for National Agricultural Information Engineering Technology, people who do not know how to conduct exchanges with others by using information technology are classified as "illiterates" by the United Nations.

In the Internet era, people in poor rural areas will miss various opportunities if the digital gap is not rapidly bridged, he said.

(China Daily May 4, 2004)

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