This article is part of a series on the life of a Chinese college graduate sent to work as a village official.
I was born into an average rural family in northern China’s Shanxi province. Perhaps it was this connection to my country’s rural areas that convinced me to become a village official when I graduated from college in 2012.
Back in 2007, the Chinese government announced a strategic initiative to give talented young individuals, including college graduates, jobs as state-sector workers in the country’s rural areas. The goal was to enlist China’s brightest and best in the construction of a “new socialist countryside” — a project that aimed to develop rural productivity, make local residents wealthier, strengthen grassroots democratic governance, and generally clean up the image of country towns and villages.
The following year, I was admitted to the physical education degree program at Yuncheng University, in the city of the same name in Shanxi. By the time I got to the fourth year of my course, I was interning in Beijing at the global headquarters of electronics and technology company Lenovo. I was hoping to find a way into China’s growing internet startup culture, which was spawning a number of rising companies at the time.
Just before graduation, I received a notice from the student employment office urging those of us who were both Party members and outstanding student union cadres to take part in the recruitment process for graduate officials. Students who, like me, had received national government scholarships, were the prime targets. By then, however, I had already received a full-time job offer from Lenovo, which made me rather hesitant. Still, to keep my esteemed professor from losing face, I took the exam.
The test questions focused mainly on understanding and discussing the spirit of speeches given by Party leaders at important conferences, as well as on our ability to solve practical, grassroots-level problems in the countryside — for example, mediating in hypothetical land disputes between villagers. Thirty of us were applying for just three spots, yet to my surprise I received the third-highest score in the interview and made it through the recruitment process.
I felt conflicted about whether to take the job. Eventually, though, I decided to say no to Lenovo and return to the lands of my hometown, now both familiar and unknown. After all, this was where I had grown up, so an opportunity to serve in a position of leadership — to do something for that impoverished, complex region — was of special significance to me.
In July 2012, I was officially employed by the Xia County Party committee as a deputy branch secretary, based in the city of Yuncheng. I was soon sent to the county’s so-called Great Northern Wilderness — a large village by the name of Nianzhang with a population of about 5,000. I was sent to work in the township government, with my food and lodging provided on-site.
“A thousand threads above strung through a single needle below,” goes a Chinese proverb. It’s often used to describe grassroots work in township governments. There were about 16 different departments in the Nianzhang township government, but only around 40 personnel staffing them. Several departments were managed by a single official; sometimes one person would even concurrently manage multiple departments. Township leaders needed to bring together the limited labor available to do the work handed down from the “thousand threads above” — our government superiors. Thus, “township cadre” was a nominal title only. When there was real work to do, everyone pitched in together, no matter what it entailed.
We graduate officials were similar to the other township cadres in that the vast majority of our time was spent doing various “core work” projects laid out by our township leaders. The only difference was that we did not have specific job titles, and so our work was not limited to any one area. In addition to handling wave upon wave of core work, I also functioned as a cleaner, a courier, a mediator, an attendant, a repairman, and a door guard. I list “cleaner” first because I cleaned the township secretary’s and mayor’s bedrooms and offices for a full year: sweeping and mopping the floor, wiping tables, taking out trash, washing ashtrays, watering plants, turning on the air conditioning, folding blankets, and so on.
During my days as a cleaner, I was also busy trying to understand the way of life that governs the bottom level of China’s bureaucracy — an ecosystem that, in retrospect, I still find depressing.
I remember how our township government once voted to select reserve cadres. Everyone in the office was supposed to cast a secret ballot. Having considered the overall qualities of each candidate, I simply voted for the one I felt was best. Unfortunately, the agricultural science station head sitting beside me caught a glimpse of the name on my paper. After the meeting, he informed the secretary of discipline inspection that I had not cast my vote for him. As a result, the secretary’s attitude toward me hardened almost overnight, and he spent the better part of a year affronting me with sarcastic barbs.
Another time, I discovered that the village had misreported its figures for the direct grain subsidy. Because the financial details would be publicly available online, and because this was an issue that would impact the personal well-being of the village residents, I found the station director and explained the situation. The director said that he would report the problem, yet a few days later, when the results were published online, the incorrect figure was still there, something that could have led to accusations of official malpractice.
One final incident really sticks out in my memory. The director of the township’s business office had asked the Party secretary if I could cover the duties of the business office for a while. The Party secretary apparently agreed, but I rarely heard from the office director about the specifics of the job.
One day, the director called and told me to get to the county seat immediately for a meeting, emphasizing that it would be concluded by noon. When I told him that I had no way of getting there, he just told me to figure something out and hung up. I realized that if I did go, I would never arrive on time — and so I decided to simply stay where I was. That afternoon, the director came raging in, his entourage in tow, and gave me a furious dressing-down in front of everyone. Dejected, I remember thinking: I was just following the Party secretary’s orders to help you handle the business office work — something that wasn’t originally part of my official duties — and now I’ve gotten on everyone’s bad side.
Whenever I ran into frustrating situations like these, I would try to maintain a positive attitude and remind myself not to be petty, not to fall back on excuses or preconceptions, not to feel overwhelmed, and not to complain. I tried harder and harder to take the initiative and proactively improve the lives of local people. Eventually, I even thought I’d found a way to do it.
Translator: Brian Bies; editors: Wu Haiyun and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: A college graduate rural official (left) transplants rice with volunteers in Zhonghe Village, Huaying City, Sichuan province, May 4, 2017. Qiu Haiying/IC)