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Balancing above poverty line, many rural Chinese "too poor to get sick"

Xinhua, December 28, 2016 Adjust font size:

In remote Chinese villages, even well-off households can fall into poverty with a simple misstep.

For Lei Zhiqin, 42, from east China's Fujian Province, that misstep was a fall from his motorcycle two years ago.

Lei used to drive a motorcycle taxi, ferrying commuters from his secluded village to the closest town two hours away down a looping mountain path. One day in September 2014, Lei fell and broke his leg. The passenger was also hurt.

Lei never fully recovered from his injuries.

He can no longer ride a motorbike, nor can he do heavy farm work. His wife left to work in the city and has never returned. It took him a while to realize that he had been abandoned to raise their two daughters and pay off a debt of 60,000 yuan (about 8,600 U.S. dollars) to cover his passenger's medical bills.

"As a disabled man, there is little to do for a living in the village," Lei said. "But I have two children to feed."

Bailukeng Village, where Lei lives, is tucked away in the mountains of Fujian. Modern cities, boomtowns, and rich fishing villages abound in the province, but the mountains block the flow of wealth into this remote corner.

About 64 percent of the village's 400 families live below the provincial poverty line of 3,497 yuan (507 U.S. dollars) annually per person, said Lai Jinyun, head of Nanxi Township, which governs Bailukeng Village. Illness and disability are cited by more than 35 percent of families as the main cause of poverty.

China has a voluntary rural health insurance scheme, known as the New Rural Cooperative Medical Care System, which pledges to reimburse up to 70 percent of the medical bills of insured villagers. But there are some restrictions: patients receive less coverage if they seek treatment in non-local hospitals, many medications are excluded from the scheme, and rural clinics are poorly operated.

In Xiadang, a village in the nearby county of Shouning, Wang Youguo faces similar problems. The family is deeply indebted, and Wang's wife suffers from breast cancer. They are raising two children.

Wang said the county hospital is unable to treat his wife, who must go to a city-level hospital in Ningde where she is reimbursed less than 20 percent of the cost.

"The doctors asked me to come for a check-up every month, but I really can't bother to go that often," said Wang's wife. "It costs money -- medicine, check-ups, and bus fares as well."

China's economic boom since 1978 has lifted more than 700 million people out of poverty. Yet there are still another 70 million living in poverty, many in remote areas like Bailukeng.

As part of an ambitious plan, the Chinese government aims to help 50 million people find better jobs by 2020, while supporting the remaining 20 million -- those who are too old or too sick to work -- with a minimum living allowance and other social security benefits.

In Fujian, these benefits add up to around 400 yuan (58 U.S. dollars) per person each month -- enough to make ends meet, but only if serious illness does not strike.

A nationwide survey conducted by the State Council Leading Group Office of Poverty Alleviation and Development in 2013 showed that more than 40 percent of Chinese households below the poverty were poor due to illness.

"Village folks are afraid of falling ill," said Lai. "Aside from the burden of medical bills, they have difficulty finding jobs."

In small, far-flung villages like Bailukeng, job options are limited, and those that are not physically demanding are even fewer. Villagers with chronic illnesses are given menial tasks such as collecting tickets for public toilets or assisting with parking for meager pay.

"Even for the ill, job creation is key," said Xu Danchen, a local official who oversees poverty alleviation in Bailukeng.

She said that because Lei's injuries were not devastating, the local government helped him secure an interest-free loan of 19,000 yuan (about 2,700 U.S. dollars) to open a kiosk.

With the money, Lei set up a non-descript grey brick store to sell goods ranging from stationery to instant noodles.

During one of the weekday afternoons when Xinhua reporters visited, business was slow. Only four villagers were sitting on stools chatting.

"Not too many people come here on weekdays. But it is better than nothing," said Lei.

About 80 families live near Lei's kiosk, and his is not the only shop around.

The government and business-minded people in the village know they have to look elsewhere for demand to create jobs and increase income.

Lei Guosheng is a retired village official who has ventured into the tourism industry. He set up a company that promotes the culture of the She ethnic minority group in Bailukeng. (The two Leis, both She people, are not related.)

Many of the minority's ethnic traditions have been preserved well. A museum was set up and efforts have been made to have the central government list Bailukeng as a historic and cultural village. The designation would be a draw for tourists, bringing new business to this remote section of the mountains, village officials say.

"We are just starting out," said Lei Guosheng. "If we can do really well, I hope tourists will come and there will definitely be more jobs."