Solomon Elusoji, who travelled to southwest China recently with a group of African journalists, writes on the fruits of China’s push against abject penury and the lessons Nigeria, which is now the world’s poverty capital, can take away, especially during this period of Independence celebration of its 58th year of existence
Bijie is a prefecture-level city in China’s northwestern Guizhou Province with a sub-tropical climate. To get there, we boarded a three-hour flight from Beijing to Guiyang Longdongbao Airport and then took a three-hour bus ride through roads flanked by rolling mountains, lush vegetation, stunning valleys, and picturesque lakes.
At Dafang County, one of six counties in Bijie, we visited a pure Angus breeding farm. At the time of our visit, the clouds were pregnant with imminent rainfall. At the bottom edge of a sloping field, cows grazed as Chinese officials addressed the group.
To combat poverty in Dafang County, the Chinese government partnered the private sector, in this case, Evergrande Group, to import Angus cattle from Australia and set up a breeding farm. “We brought an industry into China so that it can enrich farmers and improve their income,” Vice President of Evergrande, Long Baozheng, said.
The government is mainly responsible for policy support and logistics services, while Evergrande is responsible for the construction of the breeding farm and providing the start-up cows. The partnership also involves a leading beef cattle production company, China Hengrui, which is responsible for professional farming, processing and sales.
“We believe this is the fastest way to increase the poor farmer’s income. We do not change their lifestyle. They still plant their maize, which is their original source of income. But now they can supplement their income and increase it by more than a hundred per cent,” Long added.
The breeding farm covers an area of 173.6 acres with a total investment of 13 million RMB. The number of designed breeding stocks is 1,000, which was completed and put into use in June 2016. Now, according to Long, the enterprise in Dafang County now boasts of about 30,000 cows. The target for next year is 50,000. “We want to be able to raise 150,000 in the future,” he said.
This initiative has seen the local farmers’ income rise to as high as 30,000 RMB per year. And each household receives dividends from profit derived from the cattle business. Also, the presence of the breeding farm has driven the development of silage planting, processing and transportation in Dafang County.
At Hengda Village, which is in Fenda Town of Dafang County, the pregnant clouds convulsed and burst, filling the earth with fat, innumerable drops of water. The group scampered towards shelter. We were visiting one of the first resettlement sites of Evergrande Group Poverty Alleviation Project in Dafang County and just ahead were rows of double storied buildings. The porches provide shelter. Then, at one of the buildings, as the rain hammers down, the door swings open and a curious head pokes out.
Zhong Zhenying is apparently not expecting visitors. But the rain and people on her doorstep must have drawn her attention. She invites us into her home. Inside, it is warm. Zhenying, who is 83, is one of the beneficiaries of Evergrande’s povertyalleviation efforts in Dafang. She showed us pictures of her old home, a hut-styled building surrounded by shrubbery, which she had shared with her husband, son and grandson. But, one year ago, she moved to her new home constructed by Evergrande. “We are very happy here,” she said.
Hengda Village, like most poverty alleviation schemes in China, is also a public-private sector initiative. The government is responsible for land acquisition and demolition, and access to basic amenities such as water, electricity, and roads. But Evergrande takes care of the housing construction and the purchase of necessary household items such as furniture and electrical appliances.
The total investment of the project is 10 million RMB and the village covers an area of 21.67 acres with a building area of 3560 meters. It can accommodate 42 households. Till date, more than 30 households have moved in. Also, in order to ensure stable income for the relocated households, Evergrande Group built 443 standardised vegetable greenhouses around the village. Each household is entitled to two greenhouses. Income within the community has risen as high as 20,000 RMB per year. Shandong Sanyuanzhu Group was then invited to carry out the unified management of the greenhouses. At the end of the year, the group pays dividends to the local households.
Everywhere you go in Bijie, it is difficult not to see the hands of the Evergrande Group, a Fortune 500 real estate company with a market capitalisation of $42 billion. From providing infrastructure to creating local industries from scratch, the group has since December 2015, been helping to gradually transforming Bijie into a kind of mini-paradise.
Before December 2015, Bijie, which has a population of 9.2 million, was one of the most poverty-stricken areas in all of China. According to data retrieved from an Evergrande statement, the number of poor people in the city had reached 1,155,500 at the end of 2015. Backed by two of China’s most powerful political bodies, the Party Central Committee and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), on December 1, 2015, Evergrande commenced its support to Dafang County, with a non-reimbursable subsidy of 3billion RMB. In May 2017, Evergrande expanded its reach in Bijie by starting to support the rest six counties and three districts in Bijie with another non-reimbursable subsidy of 8billion RMB.
In a statement made available to journalists, the group said it wanted to help Bijie city “shake off poverty”. By the end of 2018, Evergrande says it would have helped 180,000 poverty stricken people in Dafang County alone do just that. To succeed, Evergrande did several things. First, they got the support of government at all levels, from federal to local by keying into the political vision of the Chinese Communist Party to eradicate extreme poverty by 2020.
Then they set up a task force of 2,108 trained foot soldiers who were dispatched into every county, town and village in Bijie to sensitise the people and prepare them for what was coming. The next thing was to devise a strategy and they came up with two things: build infrastructure and provide jobs.
To achieve the first part, they focused on relocating residents like Zhong Zhenying who live in remote, thickly forested mountainous areas without access to transportation, water resources, electricity or shelter from dangerous weather like bad storms. Working with the local government and propped up by public money, Evergrande helped to set up nine settlement areas for relocated people in 10 counties and districts and 50 new villages. These resettlement areas were equipped with modern public infrastructure like schools and community centres.
For the second part, which is no doubt linked to the first, they set out to build 80,000 vegetable greenhouses, introduce and breed 150,000 Angus cows and Simmental cows of high quality, build 600,000 mu fruit bases and 600,000 Chinese herbal medicine. All these projects, they calculated, would provide enough jobs and income to help lift 700,000 people from 200,000 households out of poverty.
As at August 2018, the company said it has built 60,980 vegetable greenhouses, introduced and bred 68,934 Angus and Simmental cows and built 323,000 mu fruit bases and Chinese herbal medicine bases. These industries, combined with Evergrande’s vocation training projects, have created more than 80,000 jobs. And “as one person gets employed, the whole family is lifted out of poverty,” the Evergrande statement said.
At an elevated platform that overlooks a vast stretch of kiwi fruit plantation in Haizi Village somewhere in Bijie, the Deputy Director of the State Council Poverty Alleviation Office, Chen Zhigang, shared some tips about why poverty alleviation had succeeded in Bijie. A passionate man with words, he noted that civil societies had been utilised to ensure that the people took responsibility for the development of their villages.
To combat poverty, he opined, it was not enough to give hand-outs to poor people. Instead, they should be empowered through employment. He said, “That’s why you need to create industries in the rural areas and make the people self-reliant. Haizi is a typical agriculture Village. But when we renovated their house, we also introduced agriculture products like the kiwi fruit which increases their income by ten times than when they just plant maize.”
This sort of creativity, in the long run, also leads to agricultural tourism, which will also help the people increase their income step by step, he said. Responding to a question on how difficult it had been to convince the people to adopt new practices and revamp their villages, Zhigang stressed that it was important to mobilise the people, to preach to them to help themselves to become self-reliant. “You need to educate them that they can change their own fate,” he said, “and our experience is that we use the way that people do things to help them do things.”
He explained that when the house renovations started, not every household was willing to cooperate. But after some model houses had been built and the result was there for all to see, the others stepped in. “We also show them blueprints of what the future can be if they work hard,” he said. “We facilitate tours to other successful villages. In that way, they realise that good things don’t just fall from the sky. You have to work hard to get it. So it happens that people want to compete with each other. Villages want to compete with each other. This is human nature and we use it to promote development.”