On an ordinary winter’s day, hundreds of workers packed tonnes of navel oranges into boxes, taped them up and loaded them onto trucks in southern Jiangxi Province.

It was their busiest time of year after the fruit ripened in November.

“Yesterday I sent a batch to Urumqi, and soon I will send two batches to Heilongjiang Province more than 3,000 kilometers away,” said Li Feng, a worker in an e-commerce park in Anyuan County in southern Jiangxi.

“We have a maximum order of 7,000 batches a day. When orders flood in on e-commerce promotion days, we have to rush to the farmers’ home to buy more oranges,” said Jia Longfei, another worker of the park.

“It was only in the last two years that the remote county has been transformed into a busy logistics base for the oranges,” said Qiu Hongbin, director of the county poverty-relief office.

Since 2016, the county government, which deemed roads-building as essential to the development of the county, has spent 391 million yuan (about 46 million dollars) to renovate and build over 330 kilometers of rural roads.

“After the rural roads were upgraded, the average logistics costs have been cut by about a third. Lowered costs helped the fruits sell well,” Qiu said.

Located in east China, Jiangxi is mainly an agricultural province. Half of its population of 45 million live in rural areas.

In the last five years, the provincial government has spent 41 billion yuan (about 6.2 billion U.S. dollars) on rural roads. Authorities said better rural roads had reduced travel time, facilitated trade and allowed more movement of people and goods.

In the next three years, the province aims to upgrade and build 12,000 kilometers of rural roads.

Nationwide, Chinese President Xi Jinping has called for more efforts on the construction, maintenance and operation of rural roads as part of the country’s battle against poverty. China aims to lift all people from poverty by 2020 to create a “moderately prosperous society.”
“Efforts should be made to build good roads in rural areas and maintain them to ensure a better quality of life for farmers and accelerate agricultural modernization,” Xi said in December.

In the past five years, China has seen 1.28 million km of rural roads built or renovated, with 99.24 percent of townships and 98.34 percent of villages connected by asphalt or cement roads.

Xi’s call has created fresh action on rural roads and mobilized action from ministerial and local authorities.

Last Friday, China’s Ministry of Transport convened a meeting on rural roads. Minister Li Xiaopeng demanded ministry staff to make plans on rural roads development for the next three years, and focus on building roads for regions with entrenched poverty.

Li also demanded the ministry to pressure local authorities to meet targets and to provide technical guidance.

Experts said rural roads would help eliminate physical isolation and help people escape the poverty trap. They will also boost social and economic integration, and bring isolated members closer to local decision-making.

For years, poor infrastructure has impeded development in several mountainous areas in Yunnan province, whose main population are ethnic groups perennially troubled by poverty.

Resident He Lepao, 33, blamed the muddy roads as the reason he dropped out of school at third grade.

Living in Dehong Dai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture, He had to travel for hours from his home to the seat of the village committee about eight kilometers away. Road conditions were bad for the village of only 221 people.

“It was even impossible for an SUV to drive to my home during the rain season. I had to use tire chains for my motorcycle,” He said.

Government funds came and cement was applied on the muddy eight kilometers in December.

“Finally I don’t have to use the tire chains any more,” He said.

“All-season roads bring more exchanges with the outside world for people living in remote areas. They also bring health, education and information services to them,” said Zeng Kaijun, an official with the Yunnan provincial department of transport.

In building the roads, attention has been called to maintenance and operation.

Provincial governments such as Jiangxi have earmarked government funds for maintenance of the road and contracted companies to provide a stable work force for the job.

“It is not enough to simply build rural roads. Maintenance of the roads requires double the efforts of building. It is a long-term task requiring consistent efforts,” said Wang Bingqin, deputy director of Wuyuan County in Jiangxi.