CHASHAN, China — From his home in the mountains of northeast China, Li Zhi has watched from a distance as prosperity has transformed China into a land of high-speed trains, billionaires and skyscrapers.
But the economic boom that made China rich never came to Chashan, a desolate village of 40 people about a six-hour drive from Beijing. Mr. Li, 72, spends his days limping along dusty roads to collect trash in exchange for tips. Stiff and gaunt, he subsists on a diet of rice, steamed bread and hard liquor.
“The country doesn’t care for me,” Mr. Li said as he rolled a cigarette in his home. “Nobody cares for me.”
Nearly seven decades after the Chinese Communist Party rose to power on a promise of prosperity for all, President Xi Jinping has vowed to fulfill the Communists’ original intent, staking his legacy on an ambitious plan to complete the eradication of rural poverty by 2020.
The plan targets the more than 43 million people who still live on the equivalent of less than 95 cents a day, the poverty line set by the Chinese government. Five years ago, about 100 million people lived below that line, according to official statistics.
Mr. Xi, who cemented his status last week alongside Mao as one of China’s most powerful modern leaders, sees improving living standards as essential to quelling frustration over inequality, and assuring the party’s grip on power during what the president has billed as a new era of national strength.
But Mr. Xi’s lofty vision clashes with a harsh reality across much of rural China. In many villages, young people have gone, leaving older residents to fend for themselves. Disparities in education, health care and social services remain stark.
Even as Chinese cities have turned into playgrounds for the nouveau riche and the swelling ranks of the middle class, nearly 500 million people, or about 40 percent of China’s population, live on less than $ 5.50 per day, according to the World Bank.
“The whole idea of socialism was that all Chinese would have a reasonable living standard,” said Kerry Brown, a China scholar at King’s College London. “The nagging concern is that the Communist Party has created billionaires and a strong middle class, and yet there are still a lot of poor people. That seems to be a massive contradiction.”
As China works to modernize its economy, it faces the reality that the world’s newest superpower remains a developing nation with a huge poverty problem. Experts say that a slowing economy and loss of manufacturing jobs could add to strains on low-income families, undermining Mr. Xi’s vision.
Under Mr. Xi, who has played up an image as an Everyman, the fight against poverty has become a national mantra. The state-run news media routinely shows Mr. Xi visiting poor villages, sampling the food and water and checking on the health of residents. The evening news is filled with tales of rejuvenated communities, and villagers-turned-entrepreneurs heaping praise on Mr. Xi and the government for providing loans and new apartments.
On Wednesday, during a speech marking the beginning of his second five-year term as party leader, Mr. Xi described eradicating poverty by 2020 as one of his chief priorities, vowing to “leave no one behind in the march toward common prosperity.”
Mr. Xi has also used the fight against poverty to strengthen China’s global alliances, financing programs in Africa and Southeast Asia, and urging the world to learn from China’s experience.
Now Mr. Xi faces pressure to deliver.
“Xi Jinping is a prisoner of expectations,” Professor Brown said. “His problem is not the fears of Chinese people but the hopes of Chinese people.”
While international organizations like the United Nations and the World Bank have praised the government’s work in helping hundreds of millions of Chinese rise out of poverty in recent decades, some experts worry that Mr. Xi’s plan is more about making headlines than bringing lasting change to poor communities.
Some say the government’s focus on 43 million people is too narrow, noting that millions more live just above the official poverty line in conditions that are not much better. Others say that by concentrating on rural areas, Mr. Xi is neglecting the plight of the urban poor, many of whom are rural migrants.
“The government’s initiatives sound good,” said Qin Gao, a professor at Columbia University who studies Chinese social policy. “But the question is how to sustain poverty reduction. Some people may be looking to quick fixes rather than really addressing poverty.”
Mr. Xi has instructed officials to focus on alleviating poverty in rural places like Chashan, where farming conditions are poor, access to basic social services is limited and residents struggle with heart disease and other ailments without a clinic nearby.
For centuries, Chashan, nestled in the mountains about 6,400 feet above sea level, has been home to farmers who plant wheat and yams and raise pigs and sheep on dry terrain.
The government is trying to turn the village into a tourist destination, but so far only a trickle of visitors have come. The town is hard to reach and lacks modern facilities.
Many residents said they had virtually no income and that subsidies from the government were inadequate.
“There’s no way out,” said Li Chao, 70, a farmer who has struggled with blood clots in his legs. “I can’t earn any money.”
Li Zhi, the trash collector, relies on donations from the few tourists for food and clothing. A calligraphy banner reading “Wealth will come” hangs in his home. He said he remains dubious that he will ever be able to buy his own clothes.
“It’s impossible to eliminate poverty,” he said.
The government has used a variety of approaches to help bring people out of poverty, devoting tens of billions of dollars to the effort and more than $ 370 billion in loans. Local officials, who are judged partly on their success in improving living standards, are working feverishly to meet Mr. Xi’s deadline.
Some villages have experimented with rural cooperatives, allowing families to raise production by pooling labor and resources. State-owned banks have provided microloans to help villagers tap into China’s e-commerce boom by selling embroidered dresses and other goods online.
But the hardest work remains ahead. As many as half of the 43 million people who are officially classified as in poverty could be disabled, according to the government. The campaign must also move into areas that have been chronically poor for generations, including many that are home to ethnic minorities.
Officials in these areas are resettling villagers near cities in government-provided apartments, sometimes against their will. They are handing out cash subsidies to disabled residents. And they are following Mr. Xi’s call for a “targeted” approach, tracking the progress of individual residents on giant bulletin boards in town centers.
Corruption has emerged as a problem, with more than 1,800 people having been investigated last year for embezzling antipoverty funds and related crimes, according to official statistics. Scholars have also cast doubt on the reliability of some data, saying some local officials appear to be understating poverty rates amid intense pressure to meet Mr. Xi’s targets.
Then there is the fact that Mr. Xi’s campaign is not focused on urban areas. There are more than 200 million rural migrants in China’s cities, where many struggle to receive education, heath care and other benefits because the local government does not consider them residents. Some fall into unemployment or bad health and live in squalid conditions.
“This is a very big hole in the overall picture, which the government rarely addresses,” said Philip G. Alston, a scholar and adviser to the United Nations who issued a report this year on extreme poverty and human rights in China. “The reality is that many of them are living in extreme poverty.”
On a street corner in downtown Beijing, Gu Xin, 63, sat on a flattened cardboard box begging for money. Mr. Gu moved to the city from central China six months ago, only to find himself unable to get steady work after his back was injured in a construction accident.
As he bowed to passers-by, a propaganda sign flashed in the background: “Without the Communist Party, there is no new China.” Mr. Gu said he had no choice but to ask strangers for money so that he could pay medical bills and support his family.
“I can’t live here,” he said. “I don’t know where to go.”