An elderly couple is winnowing rice in the front yard of their home in the tiny village of Dongjianggai, about 200 miles northwest of Shanghai. They’ve just watched China’s incoming leaders –- including Xi Jinping, the new general secretary of the Communist Party –- appear for the first time on national TV.
I ask the husband, Wu Beiling, if he recognizes any of them.
“We don’t know them,” he says. “Xi Jinping was just unveiled. I’m not very familiar with the rest of the members.”
Wu, 66, wears a denim hat with flaps that cover his neck and ears to protect them from the sun. He says villagers have no personal feel for the country’s leaders.
“They are in Beijing,” Wu says. “We are here. The top leaders don’t come here. There is no connection.”
But Wu still supports the Communist Party.
He and his wife, Wang Heying, say life here has improved over the years. Wang, who wears a conical bamboo hat and wields a matching bamboo shovel, attributes that progress to party leaders — even if she can’t name most of them.
“They pay attention to every aspect of our lives — seniors citizens, children going to school,” Wang says. “Look at our village. Paved roads lead to other villages. We have street lamps. Every house has a TV. Do you think this life now is good or not?”
“If you walk around town you can see improvements,” she continues. “Most of the houses here are two-stories-tall, made of cinderblock. And on top of the roofs, you see solar panels, so people can have hot showers. A number of people here have cars and right in front of me are a couple of motorcycles.”
That helps explain the varied reactions to China’s leadership transition this past week, a once-in-a-decade, secretive selection process that’s devoid of public input.
In big cities and online, some derided the process as an authoritarian charade — out of step with China’s economic development and growing sophistication.
But here in rural China — which still accounts for about half the country’s population — there is a reservoir of goodwill and people are more accepting.
A Village Viewing Party
On Thursday, a group of villagers gathered on tiny wooden stools and watched the party’s new leaders walk across a television screen.
Xi Jinping, the new party chief, addressed the nation. He talked about the need to improve people’s lives and to clean up the party, including “the problems of our party members and cadres of corruption, taking bribes, being out of touch with the people.”
Wang Jiushou, an 83-year-old retired teacher, likes what he hears.
“His speech focused on issues concerning people’s lives,” Wang says, “like health insurance, pensions and environmental protection. What he said was in line with the people’s interests.”
That’s not to say that people here are completely satisfied. Sitting around Wang’s dining room, sipping green tea from plastic cups, villagers say rural people still need lots of help. And the major issues, like health care and a growing income gap, would be familiar to many Americans.
Shi Dahai, another retired teacher, says government health coverage has improved, but still isn’t enough.
“A man from our village was diagnosed with cancer,” Shi says. “His chemotherapy cost nearly $9,000. Local government only reimbursed 30 percent of the medical bill.”
That’s a lot of money for farmers here, who receive about $110 in government pension annually.
And villager Wang Shugen finds the income gap between rural and urban China staggering. He recently visited Suzhou, a wealthy metropolis where an 88-story skyscraper is under construction.
“The areas on both sides of the highways are so pretty,” he says. “And the environment is so beautiful. High-rise buildings in cities are gorgeous.”
Wang says for the Communist Party to continue its success in the coming years, its leaders must further improve the lives of farmers — and find ways to bridge the gap between urban and rural China.