QIANDONGNAN, China — Guizhou is China's poorest province, 1,000 miles from Beijing. People here earn perhaps $2,500 per year, less than half the average national wage. Its scruffy towns sit waiting for China's storied economic miracle to transform them too, while millions of peasants -- many of them ethnic minorities -- work the flooded rice terraces carved into the steep sides of Guizhou's saw-tooth valleys, just like their ancestors before them. Americans who fret about being overtaken by China should come here to reassure themselves.
From these villages, the 18th Party Congress currently being held in Beijing, where President Hu Jintao will officially yield power to his successor, Xi Jinping, feels very remote indeed. Yet the political and economic trajectory that China's leaders are mapping out will determine the future of Guizhou, just like China's other regions. So what do the people here make of it all? What do they expect from their leaders? Are they even paying attention?
The answer to the last question, at least, is easy: Even in Langde, a small Miao minority village, the Congress is impossible to avoid. Like many of China's ethnic minorities, Miao people often wear traditional dress and live in quaint wooden houses -- all of which makes their world feel more like a film set for a Song dynasty costume drama than part of free-wheeling, 21st- century China. But banners hung in the village exhort the villagers to support "The Big 18," common shorthand for the Congress. A big video screen shows the opening ceremony in the village square, a courtyard normally reserved for singing and dancing during traditional Miao festivals. And on the morning the Congress opens, speeches by the No. 1 and No. 2 men in the Communist Party, Hu Jintao and Wu Bangguo, bellow out over loudspeaker.
It's Wednesday, Nov. 7, day one of the Big 18, and peasant Chen Donglu is watching the Congress on TV in his home, friends and family crowded beside him (Chen's name has been changed; the names of other villagers have been omitted, in case the authorities take issue with their views). Chen is in his thirties; when he entered his house, he was wearing the somber blue smock and cap that Miao men traditionally wear. But he was just entertaining some tourists, he explains, and promptly pulls off his old-fashioned clothes to reveal a tracksuit. Most of Chen's guests, when asked by the foreigner in their midst, profess an indifference to politics; one young woman even admits to never having heard of president-in-waiting Xi -- though her compatriots find this ridiculous.
Chen, however, says he is upbeat about the Party Congress. "After the Big 18 things are really going to change," he insists. "First, they're going to give us more money. Then we need more new roads." Warming up after a few cups of homemade rice wine, Chen complains that Guizhou has been neglected, while flashy eastern cities like Shanghai have hoarded all the wealth. Now it's Guizhou's turn for a government windfall, he reckons.