Extreme Poverty Drives Chinese Man to Saw Off His Own Limb


Zheng Yanliang, a 47-year-old rural worker suffering from a rare disease in Baoding, China has sawed off his own limb in the face of overwhelming pain and a dearth of medical resources.

The horrific story is evidence that for hundreds of rural workers, China’s exponential economic growth has yielded little fruit.

China stands as the world’s largest exporter, boasting a growth rate of 7.5% this year. According to Boston Consulting Group, wealth in China will grow at a compound annual rate of 18% between the end of 2010 and the end of 2015.

Yet, it is no secret that China’s economic success has failed to translate into decent standards of living for its rural citizens, particularly those who live in the agriculture-based interior as opposed to the more prosperous coastal provinces. Fifty percent of the nation still dwells in the agricultural hinterland, living on a hand-to-mouth basis. Their incomes fall short of a third of those enjoyed by workers in Chinese cities.

China still relies heavily on foreign demand versus domestic consumption, despite recent government measures to ‘rebalance’ the economy and recognize the plight of the rural poor. Newly appointed President Xi Jinping recently paid a much-publicized visit to the rural town in Heibei, where he sat with impoverished workers asking about their lives. In an act of perceived kindness, he sent a month’s medication to a rural worker, Mr. Tang, who suffered from heart disease. Awed by the generosity of the country’s premier, Mr. Tang had no answer to how he would subsist when the gifted medication ran out. “I guess I’ll just go without,” he said.

"China today is a land of huge disparities," says writer Yu Hua. "It's like walking down a street where on this side are gaudy pleasure palaces and on that side desolate ruins." 

Indeed, China ranked third in the list of countries with the most millionaires. In a Pew survey from October 2012, 81% of Chinese workers felt that the "rich just get richer while the poor get poorer." Promises from the last regime led by Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao to build a ‘harmonious society’ proved empty and inconsequential. A majority of workers feel increasingly helpless. Those in the rural interior suffer from a lack of infrastructure and facilities, while those who migrate to cities face discrimination in receiving social benefits. When asked if they feel hard work can always translate to a more comfortable life, only 45% of Chinese surveyed responded positively.

To add to the crisis, corruption remains rampant as powerful politicians rake in wealth from Chinese economic growth. In 2012, Chinese authorities took more than 33,000 corruption cases between January and November. The scandals involved 2,500 government employees, including Chinese ‘princeling’ Bo Xilai. Bo served on the Central Politburo making key political and economic decisions, before being charged with bribery, abuse of power and corruption.

In this climate of inequality and corruption, rural worker Zheng Yialang personifies the Chinese struggle to survive in an export-dominated economy that is skewed against benefits for the poor. Zheng’s 17-year-old daughter has abandoned schooling to work at a shoe factory while his diabetic wife tends to their agricultural fields. Sadly, there is no government health policy that can support this family. Zheng routinely stays awake all night, shouting in emotional and physical agony, often keeping his neighbors awake with his desperate screams. But the lawmakers who have the power to come to his aid are conveniently deaf to his calls for help.

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