In a ramshackle chicken pen on a farmstead near Wuwei, a city in northwestern China’s Gansu province, Ma Zhenghua pulls a syringe from his medical bag and gently injects a bird with a vaccine. A slightly stooped but powerfully built 68-year-old, Ma lifts his crew-cut head and reaches over to inoculate another bird.
Like many countryside vets of his generation, Ma has no specialized medical training. He graduated from a local agricultural university in the early 1970s, at a time when livestock in China were still state-owned. In 1973, the county-level agriculture and forestry bureau dispatched Ma to Hongshaliang Township in Wuwei, where he has remained ever since.
It is a typically arid spring day in Wuwei when I interview Ma and his colleague, 64-year-old Zhang Kaizhong. As the two men speak, the sun moves across the range of squat, bald hills in the distance.
Neither man is supposed to be here. In the last four decades, China’s veterinary industry has become increasingly professionalized, and these days the knowledge of countryside vets like Ma and Zhang is obsolete. In 2007, the government office that had employed them for more than three decades downgraded them to the rank of “temporary workers,” slashed their work hours, and put them on a basic stipend instead of their handsome monthly wages of the past.
“Our entire lives, we’ve given everything we had to become good vets,” Zhang says. “At first, we thought we’d be able to carry on doing what we loved until we retired. We never thought we’d be sidelined to the point where we’re nothing anymore.”
Nonetheless, the two aged vets plow on: Due to a shortage of professional vets in this corner of Gansu, they still travel from farm to farm, performing simple medical procedures on the local animals.
Things weren’t always like this, Ma says. In 1978, on the eve of China’s sweeping economic reforms, the then-28-year-old was officially listed as a “grade 17 agricultural technology worker” — a prestigious title in the former Maoist state. He earned a monthly salary of 35 yuan: a princely sum back then, but one that barely buys you a beer in a major Chinese city nowadays.
The former livestock station in Hongshaliang housed animals serving the 30 square kilometers of farmland surrounding the township. It was located several hours’ walk from the newly married Ma’s home, and was little more than a simple two-room mud hut tacked onto the home of a villager. “I decided I may as well roll out my sleeping mat in the hut and make my home there,” Ma says, adding that it would be more convenient for treating the region’s ailing animals. “When a person falls ill, you can still take them to see a doctor,” he explains. “A sick animal can’t go anywhere. You have to enter their enclosure to check them out.”
As China began to embrace the market economy in the early 1980s, the national government began leasing a certain amount of state-owned land to farmers for private use. Free to raise whichever crops and animals they pleased, Hongshaliang’s farmers ushered in a golden age of rising prosperity.
For Ma, it was the most frantic period of his life. Back then, farmers relied on horses, mules, cows, and even camels for plowing. “Saving the life of one animal was much the same as saving the livelihood of an entire family,” Ma says. There were no trucks or trailers, so vets had to travel to each spot on their own two legs.
A rural veterinarian prepares to examine a cow in Guilin, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, July 3, 2016. Liu Jiaoqing/VCG
One summer night not long after Ma had begun working, an animal farmer ran several kilometers to the livestock station calling for help with a donkey that was going through a difficult labor. Ma hastily threw his heavy medical kit over his back, and the two of them ran out into the night.
In the darkness, with no flashlight, the moon lit their way. But when a cloud passed overhead, the track promptly disappeared. “I remember falling head over heels,” Ma says, “and then feeling the ground around me to check that none of my medical supplies had fallen out of the bag.”
In the enclosure, Ma spotted the donkey lying on its side, silent and on the verge of giving up the ghost. Hurriedly, he stretched out his hands and to check on the foal, which was stuck in its mother’s birth canal. Determining that the foal’s skull had become lodged sideways against one of the mother’s hind legs, Ma began probing tentatively, attempting to rotate the foal’s position as it left its mother’s body.
“In the end, she managed to push the foal out,” Ma recalls. “I think I caught a look of gratitude in the mother’s eyes. Animals are wise like that.”
Sometime in the late 1980s — Ma doesn’t remember exactly when — a spate of avian disease descended on Hongshaliang Township. He remembers the ensuing chaos at the livestock station: Chickens had to be vaccinated by workers, infected birds had to be quarantined, and dead birds had to be buried deep underground to prevent the disease from spreading further.
Local farmers, however, were reluctant to inoculate the birds, believing the disease to be short-lived and containable. “Vaccines were expensive, and farmers just threw the dead chickens anywhere, leaving me to dispose of any I found,” Ma remembers.
After the turn of the century, the advent of mechanized agriculture in Hongshaliang meant that farmers no longer relied on beasts of burden to till the fields, and more and more young people were moving to the cities in search of work. Laborers moved away in droves, leaving behind the elderly and the very young, for whom a few chickens and sheep sufficed as sustenance. From then on, vaccinating sheep become the focus of Ma’s work.
During the Mao era, livestock veterinary stations in villages and towns were organized around collective work units: Because the animals were state assets, the government paid local vets to prevent, control, and eradicate animal disease. But as the market reforms drew public funds away from China’s hinterlands, countryside veterinary stations had to pursue profits in order to survive.
By 2007, Ma and Zhang estimate, the state provided only 60 percent of their incomes. The rest came from private vaccinations they performed outside of work hours. Further reforms decreed that countryside veterinary services should be profit-oriented: This effectively meant that the men’s hard-earned positions in the township — once considered jobs for life — no longer existed. They were now “temporary workers”: too old, too expensive, and obsolete.
At the time, the county government offered the men 300 yuan in compensation for every year worked, to be paid in a lump sum. They rejected the offer and took their pleas for work to the authorities, but to no avail. “After working myself to the bone my whole life, I thought I’d cried enough,” says Zhang. “I never thought that the real suffering was just beginning.”
“We have no way of justifying ourselves to our families, who have always silently supported our endeavors,” Zhang continues, “and no way of justifying the trials and tribulations of the past 40 years, either. Whenever I think about that, my heart aches. I can’t bear the thought of it — it makes me so sad.”
Ma’s work is his greatest source of pride. In the 1980s and ’90s, country vets enjoyed comparatively high salaries: Young people fought for the opportunity to study the profession, the ultimate acquisition of which was considered a great honor. These days, Ma says, he makes 400 to 500 yuan in a good month. When they’re bad, that figure drops to between 200 and 300 yuan. Nonetheless, he is persisting: “I’ll keep doing it until I can’t move.”
In February 2014, Ma wrote a letter to the local government requesting permission to retire. The gesture itself is a relic of a bygone era, a throwback to a time when the state determined when people were too old to work. But today, Ma has nothing to retire from. His contract has been ripped up, his job rescinded. All he can do is keep eking out a living at the same livestock station the state no longer pays him to maintain.
Translator: Owen Churchill; editors: Wu Haiyun and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: A rural veterinarian checks a donkey’s teeth in Guangling County, Shanxi province, Sept. 9, 2017. Wang Weiwei/VCG)