But today, both are operating a modest five-room homestay converted from their house and pigsty. They are earning a monthly income of 2,000-10,000 yuan (RM1,203-RM6,015) a month in this picturesque village that has been transformed into a popular weekend getaway for urbanites.
“We used to earn only several hundred yuan per animal. Income was uncertain as sometimes pigs fell ill and died. But today our monthly income can hit over 10,000 yuan (RM6,015) during peak holiday season, like the Spring Festival,” said Lim, smiling while showing her five tidy rooms to visitors.
Thanks to the implementation of a village revitalisation programme in 2017, this pristine floral countryside has been transformed into an eco-tourism site, where rice and vegetable growing continue to thrive.
The Lims, along with the other 1,195 families in the area, have been lifted from poverty.
According to village head Wang Ma, 67, the village revitalisation in this little settlement near the birthplace of Chairman Mao Tzetung’s first wife Yang Kaihui, involves three parties: local Communist Party of China (CPC) leaders, companies and villagers.
In 2017, the local CPC committee invited companies to finance the landscaping, design of homestays and building of roads in this village. Villagers then manage the homestays.
The income from this revitalised village is divided among all stakeholders, with the villagers taking 60% , investors taking 30% and CPC-led management committee taking 10% for administration purpose.
This 6:3:1 model of sustainable development has been used in nearly all poverty alleviation programmes in Hunan, the province in which Chairman Mao was born and started his guerrilla warfare life to liberate China.
These transformed villages were shown to 18 foreign journalists, who were on a three-week study tour from May 12-June 1, 2019.
This Sunday Star journalist was the only Malaysian invited to join this fellowship programme hosted by China Daily, China Eastern Airlines and two universities in Beijing and Shanghai.
The success of Kaihui Village was also seen in Xunlong River Village.
Xunlong’s 1,800 rice and vegetable growers, who used to earn a meagre 2,000 yuan (RM1,203) a year per person in 2009, now enjoy a per capital income of 80,000 yuan (RM48,116), according to local CPC leader Xu Hongxun.
The presence of a modern timber hotel within a secondary forest, the establishment of a cooperative to help farmers sell their produce in a big square, as well as the entry of outside traders have improved life here.
“I used to earn only 3,500 yuan (RM2,105) a month as a pre-school teacher, but now I can earn up to 100,000 yuan (RM60,145) a month during Spring Festival.
“My parents continue with their farming and sell their vegetables to the cooperative,” said Fong Chow Eng, 36, in front of her shop named “Stupid-Stupid Noodles Shop”.
Fong and her parents now own a new three-storey link shophouse in the market place, which is
dotted with budget hotels, cafes, entertainment joints and shops selling local food, art and craft, as well as souvenirs.
“About 400,000 tourists visited Xunlong River Village last year to enjoy rural life and its scenery. Many of our farmers have become entrepreneurs to earn extra income. For the remaining extreme poor, we have a task force to help them,” said Xu, village CPC secretary.
In response to the central government’s call to help alleviate rural poverty, corporations have also gone rural to create jobs.
This is best seen in the 40 million yuan (RM24.1mil) investment by Hunan Youzhou Company, whose cattle ranch and a modern milk bottling factory have created 500 jobs in Ningxiang.
The involvement of businesses in poverty eradication programmes can also be seen in a major fireworks factory in Luoyang. A notice board within the factory shows a list of poor families they have to help and monitor.
This positive transformation in undeveloped rural areas of China has caught many outsiders by surprise.
During the three-day tour of Hunan’s remote farming districts, journalist Dipankar Bhattacharyya from India kept repeating the same question in disbelief whenever he saw brick houses in the middle of a vast rice field:
“Is that a farmer’s house?” “Does that house also belong to a farmer here?”
The editor of India’s HT Media, who expected to see dilapidated huts or shanties in farming communities, remarked that India’s villages should learn something from China.
But for other journalists who have followed China’s rise and its relentless efforts over the past 40 years to reduce the number of poor peasants, this field trip that covered more than 10 villages was “seeing is believing”.
In fact, China’s success in poverty alleviation has been acknowledged by the World Bank.
According to a 2012 World Bank research article, China had through a mix of approaches forced down its poverty rate to 18% in 2005 from 84% in 1981, based on a poverty line of US$1.29 (RM5.4) per person/per day.
When the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping began reforms and opening up of the Middle Kingdom in 1979, one of the problems he set out to tackle was the pervasive poverty among China’s 1.3 billion people then.
Successive leaders continued Deng’s pro-people policy after his death in 1997.
According to the World Bank, China lifted 730 million people out of extreme poverty from 1990 to 2015 due to high economic growth and policies that favoured the improvements in the livelihoods of the poorest. As a result, there were only 55 million living in poverty in 2015.
While the World Bank’s global goal is to end extreme poverty by 2030, China has set the ambitious goal of eliminating extreme poverty by 2020 in its 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-20).
In 2016, the World Bank noted that China’s state-sponsored programmes in raising poor people’s earnings, implementation of early childhood development, provision of quality education and healthcare, cash transfers to poor families, construction of rural infrastructure and giving of subsidy to rebuild homes were effective in alleviating poverty.
At a key political meeting recently, Chinese President Xi Jinping emphatically reiterated the national goal to eradicate poverty by 2020. The number of poor people in China now reportedly stands at around 15 million.
In fact, President Xi himself has paid special attention to the abject poor.
Since assuming the top post in 2013, he has gone to see for himself the life of people living in harsh terrains in inaccessible mountainous areas.
But is China’s 2020 target realistic and achievable?
The remaining poor living in harsh terrains may be difficult to reach, and the ethnic minorities and elderly may refuse to leave their birth place for another more liveable but alien environment.
Local CPC leaders said they are determined to help the country achieve the 2020 target via various village revitalisation plans.
Li Guabin, a senior journalist from Hunan Daily, exudes confidence too.
“The 2020 target will be achieved. The first reason is there is a pledge by the central government.
“Secondly, there are tailor-made programmes to help the poor according to their needs and conditions,” said Li, who was assigned to cover the field trips.
Elaborating, he said if a family is poor because of illness of the breadwinner, tackling health is the main method to solve the problem. But if the breadwinner is jobless, then the local CPC leaders will help him secure a job.
Li added: “The whole country is very focused on eradicating poverty by 2020. There have been concerted efforts. Every level of society is involved: the CPC leaders and government, individuals and enterprises. In the media, we are also playing a role.
“Hence, I am optimistic of our target.”