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July 17, 2011

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One man's anti-poverty war

WEI Ran had it made: He was the successful founder of a software company in Shanghai, living the good life. He was at the high end of China's wealth gap.

But he decided to travel to the low end and document poverty, visiting 1,000 villages (his aim is to visit 10,000), helping people and raising funds and awareness of just how much China's poor rural people need help.

It was in 2006 that he decided to follow his heart and conscience, leaving Shanghai to travel through backward areas. Virtually no one understood why he would sacrifice personal comfort for distant strangers.

"I have realized I'm doing the right thing, day by day," Wei told Shanghai Daily in an interview.

Today Wei is a popular and controversial blogger ( - some people say he's a self-promoter and sensationalist without real achievements. Last year he published a book titled "The Farmers: Will Rural China Disappear?", which contains compelling true stories about the poorest of the poor, farmers, coal miners, beggars and others at the bottom. There are also stories of humanity, resourcefulness and humor.

So far he has visited 12 provinces and more than 1,000 villages.

Wei, who today is around age 40, was born in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region in central China. After graduating from college, he worked in Beijing, then moved to Shanghai where he and his friends founded a software company. They won a government contract and Wei gained his wealth.

But he always wanted something more, something different. He had always been very interested in agriculture and farmers' livelihood; during college he used to visit the countryside where he looked into problems.

Wealth-gap worries

Addressing problems of the countryside and narrowing the wealth gap are major concerns in China where coastal cities have hurtled ahead and prospered. According to official statistics, the richest 10 percent of Chinese are 23 times richer than the poorest 10 percent. By comparison, the United Nations assesses Colombia's richest-poorest 10 percent gap at around 60, the United States' at around 16 and Germany's at 7.

Wei wanted to do something to help, but years ago it was a difficult decision.

"I lived in such a big city, I had a good job and good income, so it was hard to give it all up. And what would my family and friends think of me?" he said. "I just couldn't give up and leave."

In 2006, his father died and Wei thought about the meaning of life.

"I realized that life is short, I was already 36 years old, so I couldn't wait any more. I had to seize the time. When I made the decision, I felt release and I was no longer hesitant or anxious," he said.

Wei declines to say anything about a family life or whether he is married. He hasn't told his mother that he left his Shanghai job five years ago because she would worry; she doesn't know of his good deed because she never uses a computer.

In Gansu Province, Wei visited Dayupan Village, locked away from the world in the mountains with only one path providing access. It took villagers a day to walk to the nearest town. When Wei first visited, he suggested the villagers raise sheep because there was plenty of grazing area. But the pig farmers rejected the idea. Farmers told Wei they had to sell pigs cheap because there was no road connecting to the outside and buyers wouldn't go to the village. Farmers had to carry pigs to the market by themselves.

"We only want a road, can't you help us with that?" was their plea.

Wei couldn't afford to put in a road. The next day he saw a man rebuilding his house from wood, since his old house collapsed in the Wenchuan earthquake in 2008. He asked why the man wasn't using concrete and steel reinforcement. "Look at this road," the old man said. "It would take 10 years to carry the materials myself."

Wei remembered that housing built after the earthquake had to be built to higher standards, and local officials were liable for problems. He traveled 15 hours by bus to Longnan City and told officials that village houses were substandard because there was no road to transport materials.

Worried, the mayor made a special trip to the village and ordered a road be built.

One of his latest projects, described in his blog, is helping four-year-old Kang Zhaobao in Hebei Province.

Both of his parents are beggars, and the boy was born while they were on the move and begging, so he doesn't have a proper household registration entitling him to public schooling. He cannot get one because his parents didn't have a marriage certificate and his mother has abandoned the father and son.

"When the boy says 'I don't want to beg, I want to go to school', I almost cry," said Wei. "He must go to school when he is at the right age."

Now Wei is trying to find the mother and collect necessary documents for the registration. Readers of his blog promise to help pay the boy's tuition and expenses.

"This is one of the positive effects of being better known," Wei said.

Working in the countryside can be dangerous. Once Wei fell from his bicycle in blinding rain and tumbled down a cliff. His bike was shattered, he was lucky to be alive. He crawled back to the road and, despite an injured leg, the first thing he did was buy another bike.

"I couldn't stop my work," he said.

Publication of his book has motivated many people to help by donating money and various products and materials.

His own money is running out, he said, but he cannot accept personal donations to his own bank account because it would raise doubts and questions of transparency. He started a nonprofit foundation called Happiness, in hopes it can help more people, hire staff and use volunteers. But it cannot operate legally without 200,000 yuan (US$30,960) in principal; so far Wei has 100,000 yuan.

"One of the best things in life is seeing a smile on people's faces and knowing that I put it there," he said. "Every time I help one poor person or family, I feel more than happy and satisfied. All of them are special to me."


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