How to eradicate extreme poverty: Part 3 – A lived experience
Keith Lamb
The Puzhehei scenic area in Qiubei County, Wenshan Zhuang and Miao Autonomous Prefecture, southwest China's Yunnan Province, June 1, 2020. /Xinhua

The Puzhehei scenic area in Qiubei County, Wenshan Zhuang and Miao Autonomous Prefecture, southwest China's Yunnan Province, June 1, 2020. /Xinhua

Editor's note: Keith Lamb is a University of Oxford graduate with an MSc degree in Contemporary Chinese Studies. His primary research interests are China's international relations and "socialism with Chinese characteristics." The article reflects the author's opinions and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

It was 2010 and I was in the countryside in Yunnan Province for the second time in the small town of Wenshan. In conjunction with Tsinghua University, I took part in a summer project teaching in a high school. The town of Wenshan was small and the people there said they were poor.

Certainly, wages were low and the town quickly turned rustic at the edges where I witnessed local farmers escorting their oxen along the road. However, in terms of infrastructure, it was surprisingly orderly and neat. In fact, With the surrounding sugar loaf hills, the town was idyllic.

In contrast to the tidy infrastructure, many of the students were from the more austere countryside. Clearly many had few possessions. This was evident by the fact that most students had only one or two sets of clothes. Obviously, many would wash their one set of clothes and wear them the next day.

A colleague of mine had mentioned this fact saying it was strange that everyone was wearing the same thing day in day out. That same day we sat around eating lunch and we laughed as he told me one of the students asked, "Teacher, why do you wear different clothes every day?" This question made him think deeply about his norms and values.

This lack of basic personal possessions, which I witnessed ten years ago, has basically come to an end. Many in China, judging by my minimalist standards, consume too much. From 2013-2014 I rented a cheap room located up one of the many alleyways in Xiamen. My neighbors were from low socio-economic backgrounds but still, I was amazed at the stack of shoes piled up outside their door.

Nevertheless, up this alley there was still poverty. For example, there were shacks inhabited by migrant laborers and their families. These huts were made from wood full of gaps that allowed rats and mosquitoes into the living space in the Xiamen summer.

Poverty was even more evident in the far west of China. On my travels around China, I first visited Yinchuan, capital of the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region in 2006. It wasn't pleasant and felt like a backwater left behind. Dust from the desert and the city toughened the features of the local residents.

This was especially the case as I crossed the old railway track littered with simple stone huts lacking basic amenities. The griminess of the people here showed they probably at most could take a bath once a week.

By 2012, I was walking around a revitalized Yinchuan. The huts were gone, new housing was everywhere, the streets and pavements were in fine condition and a modern new BRT transport system crisscrossed the city.

A farmer picks tomatoes at a modern agricultural park in Helan County, Yinchuan, northwest China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, February 22, 2020. /Xinhua

A farmer picks tomatoes at a modern agricultural park in Helan County, Yinchuan, northwest China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, February 22, 2020. /Xinhua

Yinchuan couldn't be looked down upon now even if one wanted to. True, there were still elements not up to Western standards but there were also elements of the city that surpassed many Western ones.

This rejuvenation of China and the overall improvement of the Chinese people's living conditions have been a constant theme since the first time I went to China in 2004. My first experience of China was on the outskirts of the industrial city of Shijiazhuang, capital of Hebei Province. Here thick smog choked the city on a regular basis as it did Beijing which is close to Shijiazhuang.

In the winter, temperatures dropped to minus thirteen. The local workers and common people had swollen purple hands. My heating went out and not wanting to appear the "pampered foreigner" I kept silent about it for some weeks.

I wrapped up wearing every item I could put on and, free of sweat, only changed every couple of weeks. I imagined everyone in my block was in the same boat, though it turned out there was a mistake as my heating was turned off. Nevertheless, it taught me a good lesson namely how important things like adequate heating are – which most in the West take for granted.

When I arrived in Shijiazhuang the food situation was basically solved. However, there were occasionally very gaunt students who didn't have enough. I noted that the local CPC cadre at the law college I worked at would often invite one particularly undernourished student with sharp protruding cheekbones to eat with us.

This same cadre invited me to his hometown, a hamlet in the countryside near Zhangjiakou, Hebei Province. Here conditions for his family were much worse than in the city. While electricity had just been installed in some homes, there were others with hardened mud floors and even holes in the roof.

With no heating, we all huddled into a single stone bed warmed from underneath by coal. Other family members on our visit slept in the stables. The toilet consisted of squatting in an open field. For my stay the food presented to me was relatively varied though, speaking to the children, I found out that their diet consisted predominantly of "luobo," which is Mandarin for turnip.

Today Shijiazhuang has its own underground system, the environment across the whole of Hebei and Beijing is improving and blue skies are no longer a rarity. Housing conditions have improved significantly and basic appliances, common in the West such as washing machines, are now common in China, too.

In line with these improvements, Chinese citizens' "suzhi" (a word that roughly translates to the quality of the people) has improved markedly. In the city of Tangshan in Hebei, the open rubbish bin is now tidy as litter is sorted into the different relevant recycling bins. The habit of queuing is steadily gaining traction.

The poor's living conditions I've witnessed have improved immensely. When I last went to find the huts up the alleyway in Xiamen they were gone. Development has spread out, in a thorough manner, from the cities to the towns and the towns to the villages.

China's development that started in the east spurred on by its export development strategy has spread all the way to the far west, to the Tibet and Xinjiang Uygur autonomous regions which I have both visited. The differences in living conditions between China and the West are narrowing.

Witnessing the China economic miracle firsthand and seeing colleagues, friends, and strangers in China raise their living conditions has been one of the most powerful and life-affirming experiences for me. It is this lived truth, experienced by over a billion Chinese citizens, that deserves greater acknowledgment in the West.

How to eradicate extreme poverty: Part 1 - China's governing system

How to eradicate extreme poverty: Part 2 – What did China do?

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