Why I Chose to Work in One of My Province’s Poorest Villages

2017-05-09 04:10:52

This article is part of a series on the life of a Chinese college graduate sent to work as a village official. The first part can be found here.

My days as a village official were full of ups and downs. I experienced the loneliness of dark, silent nights in the countryside; the melancholy of tedious handyman work; the joy of throwing myself into my work alongside my comrades; the frustration of being so busy there was no possible escape; the satisfaction of helping others; and the conflict of juggling the interests of widely different groups.

Between intermittent busy periods in the township, I made time to travel to the city of Handan, in northern China’s Hebei province, to learn more about a project that aimed to grow edible fungi. After analyzing how to adapt the project to local conditions in Xia County, the part of nearby Shanxi province where I was posted, I experimented with growing oyster mushrooms in the courtyard of the town government building.

The project was successful, so I invested 10,000 yuan ($1,450) of my own funds, rented out an earthen hut from a local farmer, and began a small-scale growing operation. I asked about 10 villagers to come work for me. Two months later, at the end of the growing cycle, our total revenue was 15,000 yuan. This small success was a source of great inspiration for me, as well as an unexpected surprise for the local villagers — even though my project, unfortunately, failed to win the support of the local government.

Following the success of the mushroom-growing project, in April 2013 I applied for a license to form a professional farmers’ cooperative and trademarked the business under the name “Yuda.” That June, I represented Xia County as part of a village official training class organized jointly by the Central Organization Department and the Ministry of Agriculture. A month later, a well-known website about cadres who had graduated from university ran a brief picture-and-text report on my entrepreneurial story.

The story proved very popular indeed, and by the end of the summer, local and national media outlets were reporting on my project. Flattered by all the interest and knowing that our planting technology was mature and the market was ripe for our mushrooms, I took out a loan of 100,000 yuan with the Shanxi Rural Credit Union, rented out two 800-square-meter greenhouses, and scaled up our operations.

I had no way of knowing, though, that a few days after starting work, two of the villagers I had hired would get into an altercation over some long-held grievance and start fighting in the greenhouses. One was so furious that he ran home, grabbed a knife, and charged onto the site where a dozen or so people were working. I rushed forward and wrested the knife from him.

The first time I went to the house of the man with skin disease, he broke down in tears. ‘You’re the first person who has ever dared come into my house and sit on my sofa,’ he said.

My parents were working on site at the time. When my father — whose mental state was quite fragile at the best of times — saw what was happening, he had an episode. My whole family decided to stop working after that. The combination of mental stress and pressure from my family forced me to give up the mushroom-growing project. I put the greenhouses in the hands of local farming families and paid back the company loan.

At the end of 2013, the Shanxi provincial committee demanded that all graduate village cadres uphold a set of values known as the “Six Ones.” Our jobs suddenly got even busier. Now, we had to pay one visit to each of the families in the village; keep one record of public opinion; write one research report; make one public promise; liaise with one troubled family; and do one thing to help the people.

I used the situation to my advantage and put in a request to the Party committee and government, asking that I be allowed to travel to remote Nianzhang Village for work. The bemused Party secretary granted what was effectively a request for demotion. So, after spending a year and a half as an ersatz township cadre, I moved from the township government down into the village committee.

I soon came to understand what a village official’s life was really like. I saw for myself the poverty and vulnerability stifling the people of Nianzhang’s farming households, and the complexity of the relationships between different family clans.

Living in Nianzhang was an elderly couple with three children, all of whom had left home for work. The husband had a blood clot in his brain that impaired his mobility and left him unable to work. His wife had been left paralyzed by heart disease and could only lie in bed. Both were more than 70 years old, yet none of their three children had stepped up to support them.

Official policy stated that only elderly people without children were eligible for the “Five Guarantees” program, according to which the state should supply them with food, clothing, medical care, housing, and funeral arrangements. This elderly couple had children, but still no one would care for them, and they didn’t have the Five Guarantees to fall back on. As a result, they lived in poverty and pain.

Another family consisted of just a single member: an unmarried man more than 40 years old. He had contracted a strange disease which made him incredibly itchy all over — so much so that he was covered in bloody wounds from scratching. Yet even in this condition, he still had to work in the local chemical plant to support himself.

I resolved to make these two cases my “troubled families,” and wrote my phone number on the walls of their homes in chalk. I told them to call me if they had any problems. But they told me they didn’t own phones.

While in Nianzhang, I would visit them every few days. I remember the first time I went to the house of the man with skin disease. I was sitting on his sofa chatting with him when he suddenly broke down in tears. Through the sobs, he said: “You’re the first person who has ever dared come into my house and sit on my sofa.”

I realized that, as a village official, encouraging rural enterprise shouldn’t be the sole focus of my job. Improving people’s livelihoods was just as challenging and important. After thinking it over, I decided to dedicate myself to improving Nianzhang’s living conditions, economic outlook, and — most importantly — the well-being of its villagers.

With the help of the village seniors’ association, I formed a dance team, a choir, and a film club. I also organized Nianzhang’s first-ever “Village Gala” during the Double Ninth Festival. I opened a store on e-commerce website Taobao to help the villagers sell local honey, and I contacted housekeeping and labor export services to search for possible avenues for employment outside of the village. I published more than 400 messages on microblogging site Weibo under the tag “Diary of a Village Official,” receiving more than 3 million views. I did all of this in the hope that the outside world would help out those living in Nianzhang.

In June 2014, I took part in a nationwide village officials’ forum in Dongyang City, in the eastern province of Zhejiang. Together with my fellow village officials from around the country, I expounded on the course my work had taken and what I had learned. I was puffed up with pride; I felt that there was still much more I could and would do. Little did I know, my time as a village official was already coming to an end.

Translator: Brian Bies; editors: Wu Haiyun and Matthew Walsh.

(Header image: A graduate village official works on a greenhouse in Xingtai County, Hebei province, March 7, 2016. Hao Yaxin/IC)