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    Mar
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    How ‘Ice Boy’ became the face of China’s fight against poverty
    How ‘Ice Boy’ became the face of China’s fight against poverty
    SOCIETY

    How ‘Ice Boy’ became the face of China’s fight against poverty

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    Photo: AFP
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    by
    Alice Yan
    Alice Yan
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    China wants to eradicate extreme poverty by 2020.

    The nation reaffirmed its commitment to tackling poverty during the annual meeting of its national legislature, which concludes tomorrow. 

    It can’t come soon enough for ‘Ice Boy.’

    When eight-year-old Wang Fuman arrived at his school in China’s southwest Yunnan province after trekking for three miles in freezing January temperatures, his hair and eyebrows were covered in ice.

    His teacher snapped a photograph of his frosty appearance, with his classmates laughing at him in the background.

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    The picture of Wang Fuman's hair encrusted by ice came to symbolize the plight of millions of China's poorest children.
    The picture of Wang Fuman's hair encrusted by ice came to symbolize the plight of millions of China's poorest children. Photo: Handout

    But once she posted it on social media, the image went viral across the country and prompted a flood of sympathy.

    He was dubbed “Ice Boy” and his story shed light on China’s millions of “left-behind children” in the country’s poverty-stricken rural areas.

    Wang Fuman at home with his sister, Fumei, and father Gangkui.
    Wang Fuman at home with his sister, Fumei, and father Gangkui. Photo: AFP

    For Fuman, his sad plight touched the hearts of many and exposed mainland internet users in affluent areas to the grinding poverty of rural China.

    His mother had abandoned the family and his father was forced to move away to find work to support his family – leaving Fuman and his 10-year-old sister Fumei in their grandmother’s care.

    The family live in a small mud hut in harsh mountainous countryside, without running water or central heating.

    Winter temperatures in the village drop well below freezing and most villagers are too poor to afford warm clothing or meat.

    Quick to seize on the symbolic value of the boy’s story, authorities gave Fuman a free trip to Beijing, where he expressed his amazement at the “miracle” of central heating. 

    Wang Fuman pictured on his visit to Beijing.
    Wang Fuman pictured on his visit to Beijing. Photo: Handout

    Donations poured in for the family and their fellow villagers, with Fuman’s family receiving $1,300 in cash as well as new clothes, books and toys.

    But donations alone are not enough to tackle the problems that have left families like Fuman's in poverty for decades. 

    Xi Jinping faces several challenges to succeed in his ambitious goal to transform China into a “moderately well-off society” in the next two years.

    Premier Li Keqiang said at the National People's Congress that the government planned to lift 10 million people living in rural communities out of poverty this year, and relocate 2.8 million from inhospitable areas.

    To hit this target, more than a million people will have to be lifted out of serious poverty every month – meaning that their annual income would have to be raised above about $360.

    A previous attempt to reach this goal by 2000 failed.

    Some 86 million people have been lifted out of poverty over the past five years, and in total a staggering 800 million people – more than double the population of the United States – have been lifted out of poverty since the country began to overhaul its economy in 1978.

    Group 5
    800m
    Number of people lifted out of poverty in the past three decades
    Group 5
    Number of people lifted out of poverty in the past three decades

    But just two years from Xi’s 2020 deadline, some 30 million people still lie below the poverty line, many further disadvantaged by age, illness, or disability.

    But just two years from Xi’s 2020 deadline, some 30 million people still lie below the poverty line, many further disadvantaged by age, illness, or disability.

    The family lives in a hut made from mud.
    The family lives in a hut made from mud. Photo: Tom Wang

    Even if this target is met, their lives are unlikely to change significantly without further improvements, such as better access to health care and education.

    The lack of infrastructure and transport links in Fuman’s home village of Zhuanshanbao highlights the scale of the challenge.

    No running hot water means many residents go for months without bathing, especially in winter, and the village was only recently attached to the electricity grid.

    The nearest road connecting their village to the rest of the world – built only last year – is 15 minutes away on foot. Before that, they had to trek for three hours to get to town.

    Without local industry or educational opportunities many adults, like Fuman’s father, are forced to travel long distances to work as laborers.

    The family's main diet consists of rice and potatoes.
    The family's main diet consists of rice and potatoes. Photo: Tom Wang

    Locals subsist on potatoes, oats and buckwheat that they grow themselves. Any meat from the pigs and cows they rear is likely to be sold rather than eaten.

    Fuman said food was so scarce that he often could not bring himself to eat the free slice of bread he received at school every morning.

    “I bring it home for [my grandma] to eat because she works so hard every day.”

    The mountainous terrain makes it hard for residents to grow food.
    The mountainous terrain makes it hard for residents to grow food. Photo: Alice Yan

    Despite enormous affluence in some cities, China is still relatively poor by international standards. Last year the local party chief Chen Hao told a state newspaper it would be “an uphill battle for Yunnan to wipe out poverty.”

    Group 5
    It will be an uphill battle for Yunnan to wipe out poverty
    -
    Chen Hao, Yunnan Communist party chief

    Political corruption has also hampered the fight against poverty, with funds earmarked to improve people’s living standards ending up in the pockets of officials instead.

    As the deadline for eliminating poverty fast approaches, Chen Huirong, an associate professor at Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s school of international and public affairs, said rural officials might be pressured to cover up poor regions’ problems.

    “Xi Jinping’s poverty alleviation drive is unprecedented in China’s history,” he said. “But the status quo in Fuman’s village and other similar rural areas are big challenges.”

    Fuman and his sister Fumei pictured at home with their grandmother Yao Chaozi.
    Fuman and his sister Fumei pictured at home with their grandmother Yao Chaozi. Photo: Alice Yan

    His father earns just under $475 a month as a construction worker in provincial capital Kunming – barely enough to support his two children, his elderly mother and 16-year-old brother.

    He has run up debts of $11,000 building a new house, which still lacks doors and windows – so for now, the family must stay in their mud hut with its cracked walls and leaking roof.

    The walls of the hut are cracked.
    The walls of the hut are cracked. Photo: Alice Yan

    “Fuman’s family isn’t even the poorest in the village,” an elderly villager said with a shrug. “And there are dozens of other pupils who walk a far longer distance to school every day than he does.” ​

    Although the publicity generated by Fuman's case has resulted in a job offer for his father, it has also had an adverse effect on the family.

    Wang Fuman says what he most wants is for his mother to return.
    Wang Fuman says what he most wants is for his mother to return. Photo: Tom Wang

    Fuman was offered free education at a private boarding school, where he could skip his daily gruelling one-hour commute and enjoy better meals.

    But just one week later he was asked to leave, as the school struggled to cope from the deluge of media attention.

    Fuman has other worries, too. When asked what he wanted, he replied simply that he wanted his mother back.

    “Mom, I don’t want to wait any longer only to be disappointed again … can you please come back?”

    For families like Fuman's, there are no easy answers.

    ALICE YAN
    ALICE YAN
    Alice Yan is a contributor to Inkstone. She is a Shanghai-based social and medical news reporter at the South China Morning Post.

    ALICE YAN
    ALICE YAN
    Alice Yan is a contributor to Inkstone. She is a Shanghai-based social and medical news reporter at the South China Morning Post.

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