WANG Zhiren, a farmer in the agricultural province of Jilin, does not know what the word "middle-class" means. However, Wang's life is typically middle-class: he lives in a three-bedroom house with a garage, drives a sedan and shops in urban department stores.
Wang's family earned 100,000 yuan (US$16,090) last year from growing rice.
Many hope that emerging rural consumers, such as Wang, will unleash their purchasing power as urbanites did during the last decade, since China urgently needs to shift its economic driving force from investment to consumption.
The income gap between urban and rural residents narrowed in the past few years, bringing down the urban-rural earning ratio to 3.13 in 2011 from the 2009 reading of 3.33.
Twenty-nine out of 31 provincial-level governments reported that the income growth of their rural residents surpassed that of urban dwellers for the January to September period last year.
China held its annual Central Rural Work Conference in December, one month after the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) elected its new leadership.
Agriculture Minister Han Changfu told Xinhua that the conference pledged to put more efforts into boosting farmers' earnings in the "income doubling program" promised during the 18th CPC national congress. The five-yearly congress adopted a resolution saying that by 2020, the country's per capita income should be double that of 2010.
While the exemption from agricultural taxation and increasing government investment have advanced the rural economy for the several years, countryside residents still face great difficulty in maintaining momentum in income growth.
Farmers in Qionghai in the southernmost island province of Hainan, China's major tropical fruit supplier, can make 40,000 yuan on average a year.
Market volatility
However, Lei Zhen, deputy director of Qionghai city's agricultural bureau, said farmers remain vulnerable to natural and economic risks, adding that market volatility can easily erase earlier profits.
China's dim export prospects also cast shadows over the prospects for rural income growth. For most rural families, the main income source is wages earned by working in labor-intensive industries, many of which rely heavily on exports.
The European debt crisis and the US's unstable recovery continue to threaten the survival of the factories that absorb vast rural labor. China's year-on-year export growth slumped to 7.9 percent in 2012 from 20.3 percent a year earlier.
Labor-intensive factories want to move up the value chain by upgrading technology and changing products, according to experts, but their rural migrant employees are not skilled enough to become technical workers.
The lack of property income is another problem for rural residents. Chinese farmers are not allowed to sell their property to urban residents.
However, many analysts, betting on China's fast urbanization, are optimistic about rural residents' income growth in the long run. China's rapid economic growth fueled the world's largest urbanization.
According to a nationwide census in 2010, half of the Chinese population lives in cities, up by 13.46 percentage points from 2000.
Chi Fulin, president of the China (Hainan) Institute for Reform and Development, estimates that 400 million rural residents will move to cities by 2020, and 160 million of them are likely to become middle class.
SOURCE: Shanghai Daily
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