Like the rest of China, the countryside of Hebei is changing fast. Within the last 8 years, luxury items of the past such as computers and TVs have become commonplace. I was pleasantly surprised to find a wireless connection at my uncle’s house, along with a brand new washing machine. A high speed rail station is being built only a few minutes away.
When I asked family members what they felt the biggest change was for the village, unsurprisingly they answered standard of living. “In the past, there were times when people were near starving,” recalled Da Bo. “I remember having to eat tree bark and grass because there was nothing left. Now there is better technology, better management of resources, and better education. The economy has improved dramatically over the past few decades and we can afford many more things.”
I spotted quite a few new Toyotas and Audis on my way to the market, contrasting sharply with the dirt roads they drove upon. The air was filled with sounds of jackhammering as cramped old homes were torn down in favour of modern ones. Er Jie (my cousin) is in the middle of building her own new house. She took me to the construction site and I was blown away by its size. Within city limits, the two-story building would be considered a mansion. “There are many other houses like this in our village now. We’re preparing for the future in case our sons end up living with us. You must stay with us once it’s completed! We’ll have 3 indoor toilets! With this big house, we’ll finally have room for all our inventory.”
Er Jie and Er Jie Fu (her husband) run a business producing and selling shoulder bags. They create the designs and have them made in a nearby factory. They’ve recently registered their own brand – Bo Rui Di (“Because it sounds like ‘Brave’.”)
Er Jie spends her days packaging thousands of bags and her husband sells them in the nearby town of Baigou. They rent a small stall in a wholesale mall specializing in low-end bags and accessories. Customers buy them in bulk and distribute the goods throughout China and to foreign markets.
Both Er Jie and her husband are up at dawn and work late into the evening. It’s a difficult life and they don’t make much profit (the cost of factory workers is rising), but they earn much more than they would farming. While standing next to a field of corn and wheat, Er Jie Fu explained to me: “Villagers only make a few thousand yuan off their land. That’s barely enough to survive on. We continue to grow crops because it’s a waste to let the land lie fallow, but we are forced to find other work such as selling things, working in factories, transporting goods, or doing construction.” These types of work are usually found in towns and cities, resulting in a massive migration of rural people in search for better paying jobs.
Despite living much better than before, people from rural areas still face many barriers. “Although we are working in the city and running our own business, we are still referred to as nong min gong (farmer workers). Why do they feel the need to attach the label nong min if we’re doing the same work as city folk? As people from the countryside, we are treated as the lowest of society. No one looks out for us.” Er Jie Fu pointed to the garbage littering the village streets. “Look at all this trash! There is no designated place for it and the government hasn’t bothered to have someone dispose of it. People end up throwing garbage anywhere. Not long ago, farmers didn’t even get medical coverage even though city people did. We don’t care too much about government since village officials aren’t really elected. If it’s been decided by the party, the candidate will win because they have the money and power.”
Local government officials are often corrupt. Er Jie Fu spoke of an acquaintance who owned a metal factory. The factory owner was close friends with a government official in charge of environmental protection, and therefore was unconcerned about fines when his factory polluted the river. In fact, the government official was even given equity in the business.
Er Jie and her husband desperately hope that their two sons will make it into university and create a new life in the city, or even better, overseas. After I helped their youngest son with his English homework, Er Jie said to him, “See your aunt, study hard and you can live a wonderful life like her.” It felt uncomfortable to have my not-quite-figured-out life turned into a 7-year old’s aspiration, but at the same time I could understand. The countryside has seen dramatic economic progress over the years, but in many ways it remains far behind the rest of the country.