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China’s efforts to eradicate poverty have been heroic and well-documented. The country has lifted more than 800 million people out of poverty since the 1970s, which contributed to the global achievement of the Millennium Development Goals by 2015. On a recent visit to the village of Peizhai, in central China’s Henan Province, I witnessed the achievements made on one particular community’s road to modernization--as well as how they are maintaining traditions despite the quick development.
As the high-speed train sliced through the Henan countryside and dropped us safely in Xinxiang City, I was struck by a jarring reminder of how high the stakes are for regional development in China. With a population of around six million, this Henan city, previously unbeknownst to me, has more people than many European capitals. If it were a country, Henan Province alone would be the twelfth most populous nation in the world. While I contemplated these figures, we transferred to a bus to continue our journey to Peizhai, where I was to be introduced in earnest to rural Chinese life.
The defunct remains of a well mark the center of Peizhai Village, persisting as a reminder of harder times. Today, the villagers have much more convenient access to water, but just 10 years ago, locals’ daily struggles there were unimaginable. A victim of its geography, nestled in a valley deep within the Taihang Mountains, Peizhai faced regular and acute water shortages that crippled its development. Aerial photography has shown just how big a difference the village’s modern reservoirs and irrigation systems have made to the landscape: previously barren land is now blanketed by lush green crops. “Water is extremely important to the village,” explains Pei Chunliang, secretary of the Party committee of Peizhai Community and a local, self-made philanthropist who has reinvested heavily in the area. “A reliable water source has enabled us to progress.”
His and others’ efforts have proven effective. The water storage systems have given local people the upper hand in their battle with drought for the first time in history, and the resulting changes have rendered Peizhai almost unrecognizable. The village’s original buildings have largely been demolished to make way for newer structures, so to understand what life there used to be like, we visited another nearby community that has not seen the same pace of development: Dawangzhuang. There, a dirt road winds through ramshackle houses, some of which stand empty and dilapidated. A few dogs rummage through roadside trash. The people still subsist almost entirely on farming. With this as a reference point, Peizhai’s achievements are even more impressive.