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Love for the Poor

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Over the past 27 years, Shi Shengchang has trudged along the bumpy paths in southwest China's mountainous area, visiting poor villagers.

The happiest thing for the taciturn man is to see impoverished people living a better life with the loans he offered.

"As long as people are diligent, I believe they can get out of poverty," said Shi, director of the Rural Credit Cooperatives (RCC) in Shuitang Town of Ziyun County, Guizhou Province.

In China, more than 90 percent of the agricultural loans are provided by the Rural Credit Cooperatives, which are regional rural cooperative financial institutions formed by shareholding partners. Different from the large banks whose customers are mainly in cities, RCC focuses on farmers.

Shi, 47, was born in a poor village, where 99 percent of the villagers are of Miao ethnic group. Shi, a Han, learned to speak Miao language when he was a kid.

Shi's mother died when he was five. Shi and his four siblings lived on the meager income of his father. In 1982, Shi got a job as an accountant in the RCC in Pingba Town.

"I didn't know if I would like it. I just wanted to have a try," said Shi.

"After working for several months, I found I loved this job. My family is poor, and all the farmers in the neighborhood are poor. They have no means to make more money. I wanted to help them."

The RCC in the town with a population of 8,000 had only one staff when Shi joined. The total deposit in the RCC then was 10,000 yuan (US$1,470), and the maximum loans the Cooperatives could afford was 8,000 yuan.

In the difficult years when China was at its early stage of economic reform, the small loans that Shi offered to villagers, ranging from 20 yuan to 200 yuan, helped them buy farming tools, piglets and calves.

"Our work was difficult at that time because of money shortage. But I knew the farmers. I knew they would pay back the loans so long as they found the way to make money," said Shi.

In 1992, Shi was promoted vice director of the RCC in Houchang Town. The Cooperatives, with six staff and a total deposit of 270,000 yuan, boosted Shi's ambition to compete with bigger local banks, such as the Agricultural Bank of China, and play a bigger role in poverty alleviation.

"We opened earlier than the Agricultural Bank, and closed much later. We tried to provide more convenient services for the farmers," Shi said. To attract more deposits, he spent most of his working days visiting villagers house to house.

Wu Shaocai, 59, a wealthy villager who had had no idea what Wu's Cooperatives was, became his friend and customer after Wu's repeated visit.

Nearly 15 years later, Shi said he still remembered how Wu showed him his savings.

"He took me to the backyard of his house secretly, lifted a slate and took out a big bag wrapped with layers of newspaper and oilpaper, within which were wads of 10-yuan bills. Many notes had got mildew."

The two took the money to the Cooperatives, and Shi carefully separated the notes, which totaled at 3,000 yuan. Shi helped Wu change the ruined notes in state-owned banks. Wu suffered no loss at all.

The Asian financial crisis in 1997 aroused worries about financial risks in China. The country's four major state-owned banks stepped up their reform. Given to the low profit in rural areas, the four major banks including the Agricultural Bank of China withdrew from the countryside with the number of their branches in towns and counties dropping rapidly.

As a result, people in the remote rural areas have little access to financial services. At present, more than 240 towns in Guizhou still have no financial institutions. But that left chances for the RCC.

"The RCC developed rapidly after 2000, " said Shi. The deposit in Shi's Cooperatives grew from 2 million yuan in 2000 to 10 million yuan in 2004.

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