The New Socialist Countryside

One of the slogans from the recently released 11th Five-Year (2006-10). With tens of thousands of recorded protests each year by disenfranchised country dwellers, a insanely huge wealth gap, and generally all around deplorable conditions out in the sticks, it is hardly a surprise that improving the situation in the Chinese hinterlands is one of the primary objectives of the latest of a line of infamous CCP ‘five year plans’. The New Socialist Countryside seeks to achieve “…advanced production, improved livelihood, a civilized social atmosphere, clean and tidy villages and efficient management.”

The programme involves at least eight parts:

(1) More water conservancy facilities will be installed between 2006 and 2010 to irrigate the farmland and allow rural residents to drink safe water.

More than 400 large irrigated areas will have their current facilities upgraded to use water more efficiently. Newly-built irrigation networks will cover 10 million hectares of farmland and 100 million more rural residents will be able to drink safe water.

(2) Road construction will continue with the goal of facilitating farmers’ work. The government will spend 100 billion yuan (US$12 billion) on road construction between 2006 and 2010. By the end of the 11th Five-Year Plan, all small towns will have road access.

(3) Efforts will be made to expand the use of clean fuels such as marsh gas and solar energy in rural areas.

At least 4.5 million rural households had benefited from the marsh gas project by the end of 2005. In the 11th Five-Year Plan, 22.5 million more rural households will start to use marsh gas. By 2010, 50 model counties will showcase the benefits of green energy, which will account for more than half of the total energy consumed.

(4) The construction of the rural power network will be completed.

Since 1998, the government has put 288.5 billion yuan (US$34.7 billion) into constructing the rural power network. But 20 million rural residents still cannot use electricity now. In the 11th Five-Year Plan, 10 million of them will have electricity by 2010 and the rest by 2015.

(5) The rural education conditions will be improved.

The nine-year compulsory education in rural areas will be secured by the public financial system starting from this year. The central government will invest 125.8 billion yuan (US$15.2 billion) and local governments 92.4 billion yuan (US$11.1 billion) into the programme.

(6) The rural public health care system will be improved.

Starting from this year, both the central and local governments will spend more to construct the rural co-operative medical service system, which is scheduled to cover the countryside by the end of 2008.

And a three-level rural health care service network will be established by 2010 to satisfy residents’ needs.

(7) Rural residents will have more access to culture.

In the 11th Five-Year Plan, villages having more than 20 families with electricity will be able to watch television and listen to radio. More small towns will have libraries and physical exercise facilities.

(8) The rural social security system will be improved.

An ambitious plan. Yet, I am quite happy to see that efforts are being made (or at least planned) to alleviate the rural education problems. An emphasis on decentralized solar energy sources to provide energy to rural inhabitants is also a positive direction. I’m not a very well traveled person, but the P.R.C. knows their solar system, relative to say Canada, or the United States, and the skyline of every Chinese city is marked with tens of thousands of rooftop solar hot water heaters.

I’d thought I’d single out point 3, the continued construction of transportation infrastructure. This catches my eye only because of an earlier article I read in regards to failed fish farms in Yunnan Province, southwestern China.

In Chinese development theory, the saying goes that if you build a road, the wealth will follow. That is precisely what government officials have promised unemployed fish farmer Yi Zhuzhi once the new super highway connecting his remote village to larger cities in Yunnan province and neighboring Burma is completed. But Yi is skeptical that this will solve any “real dilemmas” he and other villagers face.

“What people here need is simple,” Yi explained, noting the lack of electricity and schools, rutted roads, limited outlets for selling local crafts, and poor retirement compensation from the rubber plantations. “We are very isolated in this community. There aren’t even any public buses to the nearest village.” While improved roads are sorely needed, it isn’t the market or the highway that will solve the community’s basic problems, Yi said—and in fact, he added, these changes will likely encourage people to abandon their villages for the big cities out east. “The theories of the Beijing market experts don’t always work here.”

Therein lies problem with China’s New Socialist Countryside. It is largely a concept of the central government, a government tucked away and insulated within the paradise of Beijing. While I don’t doubt that the government has consulted with local leaders and inhabitants, the mechanism of the Communist Party simply does not allow the leverage required for adequate local participation in the decision making process. Despite the good intentions of the good CCP in attempting to improve the countryside (and thus avoid internal rot and potential source of massive malcontent) their system does not facilitate modern environmental management, specifically democratic process and local involvement at the highest levels.

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