Opinion: China's looming crisis in the countryside

Story highlights

  • Rural China has undergone a slow but steady transformation, says academic Tao Xie
  • But beneath the rising wealth is a looming crisis of rural governance
  • Healthcare, education and other public goods are in "woeful state"
  • It's not mega-cities that make a country modern, but the quality of life in rural areas
I grew up in a rural area in northeast Sichuan province, famous at home and abroad for its hot and spicy food. My childhood memories, like many of those born in the early 1970s, are filled with muddy roads, shabby houses, poorly dressed and fed people, backbreaking hard labor, desperate faces, and sighs of resignation.
Over the past three decades, that area—like most parts of rural China—has undergone a slow but steady transformation, thanks to China's extraordinary economic development.
Most villages are connected with paved roads; almost every household has a motorcycle -- the most convenient means of transportation on hilly, narrow lanes -- and a telephone line, in addition to modern household appliances such as color TV and washing machine.
Cell phones are ubiquitous, and private cars are no longer an unheard of luxury. Newly built or refurbished houses, against the background of forest-covered hills and green fields, create a pastoral beauty.
By most indicators, life has become much better for residents in that area. But beneath the apparently rising wealth is a looming crisis of rural governance. I got a full taste of this crisis when I visited my parents during the past Lunar New Year holiday.
My parents live in a town that is the economic, educational, and political center of that area. Since it was Spring Festival, the otherwise quiet town became unusually crowded with pedestrians, motorcycles, and cars.
A day before the Lunar New Year's Eve, I tried to drive through the major street in the town. I was stuck in the traffic for nearly one hour, though it takes less than ten minutes to walk through the entire street.
During the ordeal, I did not see any local government official or police come out to direct the traffic. Later, I learned that a police car with a non-local license was stuck in the traffic too, and that after sitting in the car for a while, a police finally came out, directed the traffic, and drove away.
Traffic jams like the one I experienced do not happen every day, but there are routine aspects of daily life that also seem to have fallen out of the purview of the local government.
The tap water at my parents' home is one good example. When I boiled the water and poured it into a glass, I could see white particles floating around and gradually settling down to the bottom. There is so much scale in the kettle that my parents have to clean it every week.
One day, I took a walk along the river that winds its way through the town. Actually, it is no longer a river, but a narrow strip of water, dark brown, squeezed by landfill from construction sites along the banks. As I walked on the newly built bridge over the river, I noticed a huge pile of garbage that seemed to have been there for some time.
Healthcare and education, arguably the two most important public services, are in a woeful state too. There is a hospital, but its facilities are outdated and its doctors are inadequately trained. The student body of the high school is dwindling each year, because an increasing number of parents have chosen to send their children to county or municipal high schools. Last year, the school has around one hundred graduates, but less than 10% of them went on to college.
My hometown may not be a representative cross-section of rural China, but it certainly illustrates some aspects of the current state of a rural governance crisis.
In its rush for urbanization—partly driven by the massive migration of farmers into cities— I believe the Chinese government has largely neglected the welfare of rural residents. (When contacted by CNN, the Ministry of Civil Affairs declined to comment.)
To be sure, agriculture taxes have been abolished, and nearly every rural resident is enrolled in a government-subsidized medical insurance plan. But when it comes to public goods, such as law and order, education, healthcare, public works, and environmental protection, rural governments have neither the money nor the power to do much at all.
In the early years of the Chinese communist revolution, Mao Zedong and his colleagues followed the Soviet model by attempting to take over urban centers.
The strategy failed disastrously, and Mao invented instead the Chinese model of "encircling cities from the countryside." Once the revolution was won, however, the Chinese government implemented a series of policies that actually impoverished and discriminated against farmers, the most important source of support for the Communist revolution.
One such policy is the "hukou" or household registration system, although last year the government proposed relaxing some of the restrictions that prevent rural migrants accessing the same benefits as urban residents.
Urbanization has been one of the driving forces of China's economic development, but it should not come at the expense of rural residents, who still account for just under half the Chinese population.
It is not the number of mega-cities that makes a country modern, but the quality of life in its rural areas.
The Chinese government neglects rural governance at its own risk.