PALONG: China has uproots hundreds of villages amid a crackdown on poverty and rural inequality that has resulted in hundreds of stunted children having to be put to work. These children learn to help feed people on squalid flat-lined houses on China’s long coasts, wading in flooded rivers and clinging to bridges as they try to survive in rural areas experiencing shortages of water, soil and land. It is estimated that no fewer than 538,000 children there have been so deprived of basic schooling that they have been forbidden from attending school at all.

Many of them are now living alongside the municipality where they were born, and the vast majority are now migrant workers from provinces such as Guangdong, a vast inland region that accounts for half of China’s garment sector. Thousands of those children have been taken in by families who resettle nearby or take them on to factories in the neighbouring provinces of Hubei and Shandong, whose impoverished industrial state has been targeted with provincial-level anti-poverty campaigns. Wherever they are, the children are soon caught up in the crushing economic imbalance: at 100 times the national rate of poverty in most parts of the country, poverty persists almost entirely in rural areas, with the children paying the price by working more hours and experiencing more demand for labour from factories.

A government spokesman said recently that 860,000 villages had been uprooted during the last five years, with 45,000 uprooted every year for the next four years. Farmers might be fighting more local governments and local leaders for fewer social benefits, but it is clear that China’s rural poverty has risen. Two thirds of working households in China now make barely enough to pay their monthly food bills, and 42 percent still live in abject poverty, according to the People’s Daily, a state-owned newspaper. Shandong, where 80 percent of rural households earned less than $1 per day, is facing the first regional government-run plan to raise its levels of primary school enrolment since 2002, with nearly 60 million children now required to receive free schooling by 2018.

State media has consistently slammed the campaign as a “deprivation of the rights of poor families” and argued that the seven rural provinces targeted by the so-called “nostalgia movement” were the worst affected. At least 128,000 families have received roughly a combined $135,000 in relief payments, according to the Beijing News, which said that, in a recent government statement, Beijing did not refer to the suits. China has promised to improve schools in the provinces as well as to strengthen the role of women in rural life. Where the factories are concentrated and the schools are lacking, the migrants have formed little-paid jobs, including serving as domestic helpers, cleaning and cooking homes. Half of China’s young men in rural areas work as small or medium-sized enterprises, putting pressure on basic education and likely fuelling an underground labour movement.

They are usually low-paid and unorganised, the largest employer by far being local municipalities. Few residents like Mr Chi are aware they are living alongside so many migrant workers, viewing the migrants with suspicion because they live in their locality and their jobs are so closed off. Journalists have been forbidden from covering migrant housing camps that many local governments have opened up in some of China’s hard-hit rural regions. While such work was originally a cheap and hazardous pastime for migrants, it now looks more like a dirty and often illegal job.

“I hate that we live alongside migrant workers. They work for a lot of money, which is just nothing,” Ms Jiang said. AP

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