ZHANGJIAKOU (Hebei) - In the course of my work, I've travelled to many rural villages in China. Many of them are poor, but none like Aihetan village that sits on a remote mountain range in northern Hebei province.
I had travelled there because I was working on a feature on China's renewed poverty relief efforts and Chicheng county, where the village is located, is one of the 592 poor counties identified on a state-level poverty list.
But while I had expected poor conditions, Aihetan surprised me with its complete lack of amenities and basic sanitation. It is also the only village I have been to where residents, many in their fifties and older, still draw water daily from a village well.
I have personally come up with two (non-scientific) scales to determine how dire a village's financial situation is: how residents get their heating during the winter months and the state of their toilet.
Aihetan ranks the worst in both. First, villagers burn only corn cobs, which have a low heating value, to keep warm as many are too poor to afford the more expensive coal briquettes.
Northern China's winter months are extremely punishing with temperatures plunging to as low as minus 20 deg C at night and heating can be the difference between life and death.
Yet many villagers with less-than-ideal heating sleep bundled up in their down jackets, scarves and gloves to keep warm. This is unlike their urban counterparts who enjoy a snug central heating system.
Second, the toilet of one of the families I interviewed was, for the lack of a better word, the most basic that I had ever seen in my two and a half years living in China. And yes, I have used toilets in rural Chinese villages before.
At villager Zhang Xiuzhen's home, the toilet was simply a shallow hole dug in the ground with a knee-high, semi-circle wall of rocks surrounding it on one side. The wide open sky was its ceiling. Needless to say, there was no door and completely no privacy.
But nature was calling and I had to go. Fortunately, the freezing weather helped to remove any stench. Everything in the hole was frozen, including any solid excrement. It was an experience, however, that will be hard to forget.
Over the next five years, China is striving to lift impoverished villages like Aihetan out of poverty. They are part of China's remaining 70 million poor who still live below the poverty line of 2,300 yuan (S$501) a year by 2010 price standards.
The villagers I spoke to, however, held little hope that change was coming, pointing to the various policies that have kept them poorer than their cashed-up countrymen in Beijing, the bustling Chinese capital whose border is just one kilometre away from their tiny village.
While Aihetan's pensioners only receive about 70 yuan a month from their local Hebei government, for instance, Beijing's rural residents on the other side of the mountain range received 350 yuan, one villager complained.
But having more equitable policies is just one challenge that President Xi Jinping faces.
Poverty now is more dispersed geographically than it used to be, which makes it more difficult to address than in the past when China used an approach that targeted geographical regions, noted University of Western Ontario Professor Terry Sicular, an expert on poverty and inequality in China.
This means also that the results of poverty relief efforts will be harder to track and Beijing should rely more on multiple sources, including non-government data, to ensure that they are on track to meet their target of lifting the country's 70 million poor out of poverty by 2020.
Greater transparency in the process such as details on how funds are spent will also ensure that officials' feet are held to the fire.
This is especially necessary considering the scepticism from experts like Prof Sicular on the reliability of China's official figures.
"I think China will likely continue making progress in reducing poverty between now and 2020, but I'm not convinced it can reach its ambitious targets. I'm also not convinced that the poverty data used to track progress towards the targets will be reliable," she told The Straits Times.
To tackle this doubt, China should allow more non-governmental organisations (NGOs), even foreign ones, to assess its work. It should welcome, even encourage, academics with diverse backgrounds to study the issue and make government data readily available to them.
The media can also play an instrumental role by highlighting lapses in relief efforts or by identifying areas of need.
Such levels of openness may inevitably lead to criticisms along the way even as policy missteps might come to light - something that Beijing might be uncomfortable with and have concerns about.
But China should thicken its skin and forge ahead, taking all these as constructive feedback because the government cannot tackle poverty single-handedly, especially in light of the sheer size of its population and geography.
It is only with a multi-pronged approach, with civil society also playing its part, can the scourge of poverty be dealt with most effectively.