He captured the hearts of a nation and became known as “Frosty Boy” in China. On a bitterly cold morning nearly a year ago, Wang Fuman started the long walk to school from his impoverished home in the rural backwater of Ludian in Yunnan province.
Taking more than two hours, the eight-year-old trudged across mountains and streams in freezing temperatures during his 4.5-kilometer, or nearly three-mile, trek.
When he finally reached the shelter of his third-grade classroom, his hair was white with frost, his eyebrows packed with ice, and his face bright red and chapped from the biting wind.
At this point, his teacher at the Zhuanshanbao primary school posted a photograph of Wang online. It quickly went viral on social media.
“Heartwarming,” one person wrote on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter. “Please don’t forget your original dreams.”
Others called him a “national hero” and a symbol of “raw determination.”
But, in truth, he was just one of an army of “left behind children,” a term used in China to describe youngsters from poor families, whose parents have moved to major cities to eke out a living.
Like many of these kids, Wang lives with his grandparents and sister in a ramshackle house on a small plot of land.
“We mostly live on vegetables and rice as meat is too expensive,” Wang’s grandmother Yao Zhaozhi told the Chinese media.
Perennial hardship is a constant companion, as it is for millions of her fellow countrymen and women, figures from the National Bureau of Statistics, or NBS, have shown.
Touching on the subject during his New Year address, President Xi Jinping said:
“We have made great strides in our poverty alleviation efforts in the past year. Another 125 poor counties and 10 million poverty-stricken rural residents were lifted out of poverty.
“Our comrades on the front lines of the fight against poverty are often in my thoughts, including over 2.8 million officials living and working in villages, and the local village leaders.
“They are devoted to their work and do an awesome job, and I wish them good health. My heart goes out to the people living in hardship.”
According to government guidelines released last year by the official news agency Xinhua, the “poverty line” in the world’s second-largest economy equates to an annual income of less than 2,300 yuan (US$337.3) or barely one dollar a day.
In comparison, the World Bank’s definition of “extreme poverty” is “living on less than $1.90-a-day.”
Still, China’s economic miracle has lifted more than 740 million people out of “poverty in rural areas.”
“This was around 19 million each year between 1978 and 2017,” the NBS stated. “The poverty ratio in rural areas dropped 94.4 percentage points during the same time period with an average annual decrease of 2.4 percentage points.”
By 2020, the government aims to have eradicated the scourge of destitution with more than 68 million people escaping the poverty trap in the past five years.
Massive infrastructure development in rural areas has eased the plight of the poor, along with state-backed food and clothing programs, and guaranteed school places for underprivileged children.
Back in 1990, almost 67% of the population met the World Bank’s then definition of poverty. By 2014, the numbers had shrunk to 1.4%.
“China’s achievements are unprecedented,” Nicholas Rosellini, the United Nations Resident Coordinator and UN Development Program Representative in China, said.
Yet there have been voices raised in academia and on social media that more money should be pumped into domestic projects, particularly in rural regions, instead of high-profile ventures such as $1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative.
In his seminal essay Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes, Xu Zhangrun highlighted concerns about excessive spending on these ‘New Silk Road’ superhighways, which have become an extension of the nation’s global ambitions and the centerpiece of its economic foreign policy.
“People have become resentful of unnecessary foreign aid when there are still millions of people in poverty,” Xu, a professor of constitutional law at the influential Tsinghua University, wrote. “[This could be better spent] on the welfare of the people, such as healthcare, pensions and education.”
During the summer, Xi’s $60 billion “aid program” announced at the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in Beijing created waves online for all the wrong reasons.
Many were furious that taxpayers’ money was being funneled into “dollar diplomacy” when it could be used to fund more pressing issues at home.
“The [Communist] Party keeps telling me that it’s my duty to pay taxes, but has Xi ever sought my views on how to spend my money?” asked one critic of the plan.
To put the 410 billion yuan “aid” package of preferential financing, export credit lines and interest-free and concessional loans into perspective, it was double the amount Beijing spent on public health in 2017. It was also six times more than the social welfare budget.
“What is the point of continuing to splurge hundreds of billions of taxpayers’ money on helping far-flung African countries when we have a host of issues back home?” another person asked on Weibo.
An extra $60 billion would have certainly boosted the 1.2 trillion yuan ($175 billion) which was put aside last year for poverty alleviation.
Moreover, critics stressed, it would ease the plight of the rural poor, such as “Frosty Boy” and his family.