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Internet enriches farmers' lives
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Deep in the Chinese countryside, there is great appreciation for the benefits of the Internet. The Ministry of Information Industry reported the number of netizens in rural areas increased from 23.1 million in 2006 to 37.41 million at the end of June 2007, approximately 5.1 percent of the total of rural population.

Reporters from the Ban Yue Tan, a monthly magazine, investigated the phenomenon in Shandong and Hunan provinces and found the Internet has become a new engine for agricultural growth and improvement of farmers' spiritual lives.

Shandong Province

Rong Qinjun was the first to buy a computer in Xiayu Village of Tai'an City, Shandong Province. Rong, village Party secretary, said that he did so in 1994, and at that time could only enjoy a basic dial-up Internet connection. In 2004, broadband network service reached the village. So far, 36 households, a fifth of the village total, have broadband.

Using the Internet, Rong said, the village had attracted 20 million yuan (US$2.68 million) in foreign investment.

In the picture taken in August 2007, the young woman is showing 76-year-old farmer Xie from Linmu County of Shandong Province how to use the computer to talk with his son working in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

A 4,000-square-meter factory stood unused for many years until Rong posted a message on a local website to see if he could attract overseas funds for the village dairy industry. Soon after, an international medical trade company from Cambodia replied and eventually signed a joint venture agreement to process diary products.

"Now more than 100 villagers are employed with an average monthly income exceeding 800 yuan (US$107.32)," said Rong, adding that six enterprises had so far been established in the village.

Villager Gao Futai, 43, used to worry that he wouldn't be able to find a good job in cities. He turned to the Internet, where he thought he might find a job overseas. In August 2005, he signed a contract with a foreign-related company to become a construction worker in Panama with an annual income exceeding 100,000 yuan (US$13,415.98).

"My husband posts 9,000 yuan (US$1,207.44) to the family every month which is enough to support the whole family. We can save 80,000-90,000 yuan (US$10,732.78-12,074.38) each year and we will start our own business as soon as he comes back," his wife said.

She said most villagers had found jobs outside through the Internet. "More than 30 young men now work overseas."

In this village, buying computers has also become fashionable as a new wedding ritual. "A computer must be included in a dowry nowadays," said Zhang Yu, a young woman of Xiayu Village. "My husband works as a teacher in Tai'an City, so I surf the Internet every day to kill time."

Zhang Yu said that she watches online movies and downloads music and songs, and chats through QQ. "I have more than 50 close friends in QQ. I don't feel lonely at all," she said.

Statistics from the Tai'an city government show that there are 36 grass-root computer centers in the 3,717 villages under its administration that share local cultural information resources. Take Xiayu Village as an example: there are two sets of computers with access to broadband and more than 2,000 disks with various content stored in a 10-square-meter room.

"Villagers come here to surf the Internet for free," said Party Secretary Rong Qinjun. "The disks contain knowledge of planting, aquiculture, civil disputes, vocational training, movies, and local operas. They greatly help enrich villagers' spiritual life."

The village committee used to paste printed announcements and information on the walls, recalls Rong. "Now, we plan to establish a regional network so that information will be available at the click of a mouse from their homes." The information covers agricultural policies, laws and regulations, product prices, financial affairs, and pensions.

Zhou Min, an official from Tai'an City, said the Internet helped broaden farmers' horizons. "Farmers' awareness of democracy and participation in politics has strengthened," he said. "Villagers now actively participate in online voting for the re-election of village committees."

Hunan Province

Over the past seven years in Dutou Village, Liuyang City of Hunan Province, famous for its flowers and plants, more than half the villagers have bought computers and gained access to the Internet.

"The village has set an exemplary role in the drive to spread access to information throughout the province," said Party secretary Yi Shuguang. "Villagers now sell their flowers and plants to all parts of the country through the Internet."

In this picture taken in August 2003, telecommunication technicians install broadband networks for farmers living in remote rural areas in Shaoyang County, Hunan Province.

Su Xuege and his son are renowned "gardening experts" in the village. In 2000 Su bought a computer and started online sales of flowers and plants. "We have developed a good sales network," he said. "Each year we spend 30,000-50,000 yuan (US$4,024.79-6,707.99) on advertising. We used to go out and contact clients by ourselves, but now they contact us."

Villager Xie Houqiang said he likes to surf the Internet for the latest news on agricultural polices. For example, he is well versed on the latest 17th National Congress of the Communist Party of China from his daily surfing.

Xie said that he has many online chats with web friends. "We exchange information on gardening," he said.

Villager Liu Guiyun, 64, said villagers in his village started gardening business in the early 1980s and online sales began to get popular five years ago.

According to Liu's family, living in urban areas is not as good as life in rural areas. "Some urban people's incomes are not as high as ours, and the air quality in cities is not as good as in the countryside, either."

Currently, Liu's business extends to Hong Kong and Macao. "No villagers work outside. We employ people to work for us. We pay them about 60 yuan (US$8.05) every day. Many people come to our village to find jobs."

"We used to spend more than 100,000 yuan (US$13,415.98) on business trips and production processes were greatly delayed by this," said Liu. "Through online business, we get better and more timely information and have saved both time and expenditure."

Telecommunications boost

A recent report from the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) said the rapidly improving telecommunications infrastructure in rural areas has facilitated the increase of Internet users. In its 11th Five-Year Program (2006-2010), the Ministry of Information Industry vowed to extend phone services to every village and enable every township to gain access to the Internet.

In the Xinhua picture from late August, farmer Zhang Jinlin (first on the right) enjoys broadband Internet service with his family at home in Geqi Village, Minnan County of Fujian Province.

The main rural Internet users are young farmers and migrant workers, who can use computers to enjoy online music, games, and videos as skillfully as urban users. They also use the Internet to access agricultural information and technologies, including the market price for produce. However, unlike their urban counterparts, rural net users at present rarely use the Internet for news, online shopping, online banking, and trading stocks.

Liu Manqiang, deputy director of the Information Research Center under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said that this could "bring about huge added value. An important goal of the country's information drive is to enable more farmers to benefit from the development of the information industry."

( by Li Jingrong November 5, 2007)

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