01/17/2008, 00.00
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Rich and poor in Guangdong living “side by side”

In China’s richest province millions of people live below the poverty line (a dollar a day) without old age retirement protection or medical care. A hitherto indifferent government now begins to talk about helping them.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Guangdong’s gross domestic product (GDP) has surpassed Singapore and Hong Kong and the province’s Governor Huang Huahua said it even topped Taiwan last year. But it also has more than 3.31 million people living below the poverty line in 3,409 poor rural villages; places that belong to another, less well-known China inhabited by people whose fate worry less the state, people who cannot afford medical care.

In 30 years of economic growth Shenzhen's per capita GDP reached 69,450 yuan in 2006, 7.3 times that of Heyuan prefecture, home to about 200,000 people some 200 kilometres away, where it stands at 9,495 yuan.

Lai Rihong, a motorcycle-taxi driver, has to support himself, his wife and a son on an average annual income of about 10,000 yuan. Every day he picks up passengers on the roads between the towns of Dengta and Banjiang in Heyuan, near the Xinfengjiang Reservoir, a key source of drinking water for Hong Kong. Efforts to preserve water quality have curbed local development which was done without concern for the environment elsewhere.

Mr Lai and his family are fortunate to live in an apartment built 10 years ago but can only scrape by because of the cost of treating their 20-year-old son's osteoporosis. The illness has lasted more than five years and the cost of treatment has put the family 80,000 yuan into debt that they cannot afford to pay.

“I don't believe we can improve our lives if no one invests in the town to provide us with job opportunities,” he told the South China Morning Post.

Banjiang native Yang Lizhen, 33, said the only industry that is allowed near the Xinfengjiang Reservoir is agriculture, because it does not pollute the drinking water of millions of people.

A mother of three, she tends a vegetable field. She said she and her husband had worked in Shenzhen and Dongguan before but had to return home because elderly and young relatives needed to be taken care of. Her only hope now is that her children will be able to leave their poor village to get an education.

Mainland China does not provide health care or old age retirement to hundreds of million of peasants, nor education to migrants’ children.

But in recent days local politicians have announced plans to help have-nots.

Guangdong announced on Monday that it would help 300,000 poor peasants move from mud-brick houses each year and build new homes for all peasants living in such houses within eight years.

There are also suggestions that a food coupon system established in 1955 and abolished in 1993 might be restored. But so far it remains only a suggestion.

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