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January 10, 2011

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Sail away from rural poverty

Around 2 million people struggle for a living in isolated mountains of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region while authorities struggle to move them out for a better future. One step is the Sail Away Class for children. Tan Weiyun takes roll.

Pan Huan hasn't been home to her rugged mountain village for three months. For a 13-year-old girl, that's a very long time, and the first time she ever left home.

Home is Bazhong Village in poverty-stricken Tianlin County in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region of southwestern China. It's one of the country's most beautiful areas, famous for its spectacular mountains and jagged rock formations rising along the Li River. But its geography also means that around two million people in its hinterlands are locked away in remote, underdeveloped areas and left behind as China forges ahead.

Pan's immediate family - her mother and sister - live in a hamlet of only 1,700 residents who eke out a subsistence living.

"I miss my mom and my sister," Pan sobs, tears pouring from her left eye - she has been blind in her right eye since birth. Her 16-year-old sister Pan Xi, who dropped out of school at age 9 to help at home, was born with a disabled right hand. Their 42-year-old mother has a slight mental disability and Pan Huan says she doesn't even have a name.

The family's sole support is the 45-year-old father, a migrant worker in Guangzhou City, Guangdong Province, who drifts from one construction site to another. The annual income for the whole family is no more than 3,000 yuan (US$453).

Pan may be lonely, but she's a lucky girl. Around 200 school-age children back in her village have had to quit school because of poverty. Education is free in poor rural areas, but books and other materials must be purchased. Many families are so poor that many children have to work.

Thanks to her excellent grades, Pan Huan was enrolled in the Yang Fan (Sail Away) Class in Tianlin Middle School last September. All her fees and expenses are covered.

The girl can return home when she saves enough for a bumpy, three-hour ride in an old bus, then a truck with a wooden flatbed. But she hasn't gone back yet.

Her 50 fellow pupils in Tianlin have also been chosen from the 14 backward villages in the county. For the time being, they don't have to worry and, it is hoped that with education they can get a city job. Their future will be brighter than that of children remaining behind in villages.

The Sail Away Class - named to suggest that young people can sail away and realize their dreams - was launched a year ago in seven counties in Guangxi and sponsored by the China Siyuan Anti-poverty Foundation. It aims to keep poor children and school and help poor dropouts return to class.

But it is part of a larger plan for the autonomous region - relocation by education, using education to help young people "sail away" from remote ancestral areas into modern urban areas. The shift is expected to help future generations live better lives.

"Since the 1980s the local government has been trying hard to help locals get out of the big mountains, where they have lived for centuries, but those projects either didn't work well or eventually failed," says Qian Xueming, the Sail Away director and one of the project's founders.

According to rough statistics (no one knows for sure), more than 2 million people live in Guangxi's mountainous areas, most of them belonging to the Zhuang, Miao, Dong and Yao ethnic minorities.

Cut off from the outside world for hundreds of years, they develop their own livelihood. Due to the harsh natural environment and lack of arable land, they fell trees, burn ground cover and use dynamite to break up rocks that they break up further and then sell for building and road materials. They can only work tiny plots of meager land. Their isolation also means a smaller gene pool, intermarriage and a higher rate of birth defects.

"The mountains are being destroyed day by day and people's living conditions are also worsening," Qian says.

Local authorities have tried many ways to lure people from their mountains. They have built housing on lowlands, provided free farmland and granted relocation subsidies.

"But they sneaked back home each time. After all, the mountains were their home and it was a little difficult for them to fit into the majority Han Chinese group," Qian says.

The Sailing Away Class is a small step in eventual relocation, but the goal may take decades to realize.

The children can receive a quality education, get accustomed to city life and find an urban job after graduation.

"If one person in the family gets out of the mountains and finds a niche in the city, we believe he or she could bring the whole family out," says Qian.

The children selected to Sail Away are all top students from poor families. Each gets a monthly subsidy of 200 yuan and all costs of middle school education are covered.

Seven counties each have opened a Sail

Away Class. In addition to Tianlin, they are Lingyun, Tianyang, Leye, Longlin, Xilin and Xincheng counties.

Each class is sponsored by a business. The class in Tianlin Middle School that opened last September is sponsored by the cosmetics giant L'Oreal China, which donated 330,000 yuan, computers and electronic products.

"I want to be a doctor to cure my mom and my sister," says Pan Huan, who was one of the top 10 students in her Bazhong Village Primary School class.

From downtown Tianlin to Pan's hometown Bazhong Village, it's more than two hours by car on a narrow zigzagging mountainous road that often gets blocked by boulders and landslides in the rainy season.

Built in 1925, the Bazhong Primary School is dilapidated - and it will be closed. Green paint is peeling from the walls of the dimly lit classrooms. Stone floors are cracked and uneven, blackboards are in pieces, desks and chairs are broken down and books are coming apart.

The only thing fresh, bright and inspiring is China's national flag fluttering against the blue sky.

"When it rains, it drizzles inside," says 60-year-old Wei Youjun, who has been a teacher for around 40 years. But he never considers leaving.

"I can't live without those children and their happy giggles. Through them I see myself when I was little," he says.

The school has - or had - five teachers and around 90 students from first through third grades. Children now will be sent to nearby Zhehua Primary School.

"We are not able to teach anymore, as you can see from the conditions here," says Wei.

But to get to any primary school, children must walk for at least an hour in the morning, and back in the afternoon. The mountain road is dangerous and children have to cross a river bridge. Four years ago a little girl was washed away in a flood.

This is the way Pan Huan took to primary school every day, but now she's on a different path, one that can take her out of the mountains and onward to a better future.


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