Zhang Xinyun doesn't read: It's not because he hasn't attended school, but simply he can't lay his hands on books.
Fifty-four-year-old Zhang and other farmers of Muzhang village in northwest China's Shaanxi Province have lived their entire lives without access to a library. They can't subscribe to a newspaper, either.
"The only fun for me is watching TV or chatting with my neighbours," said Zhang, 54.
"No one reads occasionally, I go to the village official's home to read newspapers. "
Muzhang is among many villages in China where nine out of 10 residents complain of lack of access to books, shows a recent survey.
Public libraries are confined to the county-level and above, the survey shows, and other public services in rural China fall way short of expectations.
The survey, conducted in early 2006 by the Horizon Research Consultancy Group, found that a shortage of public service facilities for entertainment and sports hampers rural life.
The survey covered 4,128 residents between the ages of 16 and 60 in eight cities, seven towns and their neighboring rural areas to evaluate public service facilities.
Libraries, cinemas and fitness facilities scored 24.9, 42.1 and 67.9, out of a possible 100 in rural areas. The scores were much higher for urban areas: 69.5, 67.9 and 70.7.
Li Guohua, 44, a farmer in northeast China's Heilongjiang Province, spends his days watching TV programs in winter when there's nothing much to do in the fields.
"It's pretty boring out here," he said. "I wish we had an indoor hall where people could gather to sing and dance."
Rural children, too, find their hometowns less fun than the cities.
Li Fei, the 19-year-old daughter of Li Guohua, attends school in Harbin, capital of Heilongjiang, and returns home only during vacations, complained: "I can't go online at home. It would be meaningless even if we bought a computer because the village has no Internet connection."
Cultural services are poor, and don't meet the rising demands of farmers, who are earning much more these days, said Zhang Yongxin, a director of the Social Culture Department of the Ministry of Culture.
The government, however, has taken steps to help the rural areas, he said.
During the 11th Five-Year Plan (2006-10), about 27,000 cultural centers are expected to be built in counties and townships across the country. Each will have an average area of 1,000 square meters and offer books, Internet connections and room for performances.
There are currently about 35,000 cultural centers in the counties but most don't have such facilities. But by 2010, every village is expected to have its own cultural center.
The government has allocated 60 million yuan ($7.5 million) to distribute 5.11 million books in 300 poor counties and 3,000 townships between 2006 and 2008.
Also, cultural organizations set up by farmers will be encouraged, Zhang said.
While the government increases spending in rural areas, some experts suggest better use of current resources scattered among different government bodies at the local level.
Wen Tiejun, dean of the school of agriculture economics and rural development of Renmin University of China, said village committees should open their services to farmers.
"The point is not whether farmers want cultural services or whether they will use the facilities, what matters is departments and institutions in the villages should not keep their resources to themselves. They have to share them with the farmers," Wen said.
For instance, he said, many village schools have libraries which are mostly restricted to teachers and students. If the libraries are open to the public, farmers will have more books to read.
(China Daily January 15, 2007)