Frail and unkempt, 75-year-old Wang Shuying walks with a stoop, with her upper body almost parallel to the ground. The stoop is caused by chronic lumber strain, which has worsened steadily over her arduous life. Working on a farm 40 years ago, she often had to carry vegetables or grain in bags as heavy as 40 kg on her back from the fields to her home. Now she shoulders the responsibility of taking care of the other four members of her five-people family in a village about 40 km southwest of downtown Beijing.
Wang's 79-year-old husband, suffering from mild post-stroke hemiparesis, can only walk slowly on crutches. Her son and daughter-in-law are both mentally challenged and can do only simple housework to help the family. Wang's granddaughter, Zhang Lingling, once a high performer at middle school, was struck by schizophrenia about three years ago and had to quit school for a lengthy stay in hospital. Although her situation stabilized after coming home from hospital, the 19-year-old girl still has to take medicine twice a day. Wang herself also has to take medicine for high blood pressure every day.
Wang's husband used to earn a small salary as a janitor, but retired from the job many years ago. Her son was hired by the village committee as a street sweeper until he was sent into hospital to have a gallstone removed four years ago.
Although nobody in this rural family has a stable income, Wang said she does not have any worries about their livelihood since their living and medical expenses have been mostly covered by the basic living guarantee system and supplementary benefits such as medical aid since 1999. "I have never felt more relaxed in my life. Without the government's help and money, I think a family like us could have been starved to death many years ago," said Wang, striding into her courtyard to prepare lunch for the family.
Like other families in the village, the farmland of Wang's family has become part of the village's farm, which is cultivated as a whole. In return, the family is supplied with wheat flour and rice, which are distributed every three months. The family has also maintained a little extra land to cultivate vegetables and other food, such as corn, for a change on the dining table.
The family's cash comes mainly from living subsidies for elderly citizens and the handicapped from the village committee, amounting to 290 yuan every month, which leaves the income level of the family far behind the local basic living expense standard of 330 yuan per person per month. This has entitled the family to receive basic living allowances of 1,252 yuan every month fully afforded by the Fengtai District Government, which administers the village.
Although 1,252 yuan is not a lot of money (the average five-person family living in a suburb of Beijing earns 4,655 yuan per month), it fostered a dream in the family to send Zhang Lingling to university by saving up their allowances.
"I was so happy when Lingling told me her ambition to become a doctor or a teacher in the future. I kind of kept to myself the fact that with the government allowances we could afford to send her to college," said Wang.
That dream was dashed when Lingling became ill and quit school, and Wang found new ways of using the family's savings. In July, Wang and her husband paid to install a smokeless heating system in their home, at a cost of 2,400 yuan. Half of the money was paid by one of their three daughters while the elderly couple paid the other half with the basic living allowances of that month.
"We two have experienced so much pain and hardship in our life. Now it is time for us to enjoy some comfort that we can afford," Wang said.
Wang is also using the allowances to buy nutrition supplements for her granddaughter, hoping that they will accelerate her full recovery.
Su Meiying, a member of the village committee in charge of social security services, is a frequent guest of Wang's family. Besides distributing subsidies and life allowances to the family every month, she also visits them almost every week to make sure things are all right. She has become a friend of Zhang Lingling and has spent a lot of time chatting with her to alleviate her mental pressure.
"You should not talk about schools and colleges in front of Lingling, this could make her sad and her recovery slower," Su told Wang's family when Zhang Lingling was not at home.
In this village of 5,200 people, 56 households totaling 107 people receive rural basic living allowances. One of Su's responsibilities is to help with the application for allowances to higher levels of government and to make sure that ineligible applicants do not receive the money.