When President Xi Jinping last came to central China’s Lankao county, it was famous for two things: poverty and the government official who reputedly died trying to end it.
Three years later, the hardscrabble area has undergone a Cinderella-like transformation, waltzing across the national poverty line just in time for the Communist Party’s twice-a-decade congress on October 18.
With its freshly paved roads, modern community centre and memorial to Xi’s visit, Lankao’s Zhangzhuang village has become a showpiece for the president’s ambitious and politically critical campaign to wipe out rural poverty by 2020.
But a drastically different picture emerges on the outskirts, where farmers still live in ramshackle homes and move along rutted lanes.
The contrast highlights the difficulty of spreading the wealth of the world’s second-largest economy, a central mission for Xi as he prepares to accept a second five-year term as general secretary of the Communist Party.
Success is crucial for the credibility of the party, which came to power promising a radical redistribution of the nation’s wealth, and would help solidify Xi’s stature as the most powerful leader in decades.
‘A bubble economy’
In the three years since Xi’s visit, Lankao’s official poverty rate dropped from 12 percent to under two, making it just the second county to be removed from a national registry of almost 600 poor areas.
Officials attribute the success to better directed aid and low-interest micro-loans that have helped needy families increase their income by buying livestock and farming equipment.
But Xi also took personal responsibility for the area of more than 760,000 in 2014 as part of a programme that paired top party leaders with local governments.
He chose Lankao — and Zhangzhuang specifically — for its association with Jiao Yulu, an official who became a national hero after famously working himself to death helping farmers eke out a living along along the flood-prone Yellow River five decades ago.
The president’s visit “gave us encouragement and inspiration,” said local official Wang Qifu, speaking by a massive monument to Jiao in the bustling county seat. After the leader came, “doing poorly wouldn’t do.”
But life in Xi’s dream village is surrounded by another reality.
While everyone agrees Lankao has changed enormously since Xi’s visits in March and May 2014, those on Zhangzhuang’s outskirts complain the gains have not been equitable.
The backs of houses along the road to the village have been whitewashed to give the appearance of wealth, but on the other side, narrow, muddy streets run past homes with broken windows and crumbling bricks.
“We haven’t seen any changes here,” said one elderly woman, a farmer who declined to give her name.
“The people with connections to the village government have all shaken off poverty. Those without connections haven’t.”
Many residents still feel poor, complaining there is little money in farming and earning more means moving to urban areas.
To tackle the problem, the county has encouraged cooperatives to grow more profitable crops such as melons, established industrial parks, and also dedicated several large memorials to Jiao — and its own Xi-fuelled success — hoping “red tourism” will create much-needed jobs.
A busload of foreign ministry employees sporting Communist Party lapel pins recently made the pilgrimage, stopping at Jiao’s memorial hall and a village that has prospered by making traditional Chinese instruments.
In May, 27-year-old Peng Biao — a village official — and his wife turned their family home near the Yellow River into a small, stylish restaurant, hoping to cash in on the tourism boom.
Three dishes cost about 40 yuan ($6.50), almost a week’s income for one of the 23 households still on the village’s poverty list.
Lankao has made good progress, Peng said, but if the county cannot create more jobs “it’s just a bubble economy. On the surface, people may seem well-off, but actually, they won’t have even a single yuan in their wallet.”
Ahead of the party congress, state media have heavily promoted the “Lankao Model” and the “Jiao Yulu spirit” to combat poverty.
According to official figures, around 700 million have escaped poverty since China began its economic reforms in 1978.
But the gap between rich and poor “has become quite alarming” for Beijing, said Cheng Li, an expert on Chinese leadership at Washington’s Brookings Institution.
“The whole thing about China’s economic rise is you see the economic disparity has become a bottleneck.”
In 2016, around 43.3 million rural residents still lived below the country’s official poverty line of 2,300 yuan ($346) a year at 2010 prices, according to official statistics.
The threshold changes based on location but Lankao’s $460 is still well below the $694 that the World Bank considers “extreme poverty”.
Achieving Xi’s goal of “moderate prosperity” by 2020 could prove difficult even for a county that has benefited from the president’s support.
“In other places, it might not be a big problem, but we just shook off poverty,” Wang said, “our foundation is pretty bad.”