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    How I Went From Village Teacher to Co-Op Leader

    After an early round of co-ops failed, one village in northern China tried again with a new approach.
    Sep 17, 2019#rural China

    After decades of fast-paced urbanization, China is finally switching gears and starting to address the now-yawning socio-economic divide separating its cities and countryside. Over the past few years, the government has spent huge sums of money in an attempt to raise farmer incomes, alleviate poverty, and “revitalize” the countryside. But the work isn’t all state-run: Villagers can and often do take an active part in revitalizing their homes — sometimes in tandem with government initiatives and sometimes on their own.

    For much of the 1980s and ’90s, I worked as an elementary school teacher in my husband’s hometown. Zhaizi Village, which is located along the Yellow River at the junction of Shanxi, Shaanxi, and Henan provinces in north-central China, is in many respects an ordinary Chinese village. When I had free time, I helped my husband run his agricultural supplies store. This gave me plenty of opportunities to interact with other villagers, and I quickly realized that many of them lacked the technical knowledge to know which fertilizers paired best with which crops. In an effort to help, in 1998 I organized a free agricultural training course for local residents.

    I soon began trying my hand at other training programs and social organizations, and in 1999, I quit my teaching job to devote myself to this work full time. In 2005, the villagers and I formed our first cooperatives. Almost all of them failed within two years, but in 2012 we tried again, this time with more success. Today, the Puhan Planting Professional Cooperative Federation includes over 3,800 families from three villages and two townships — Puzhou and Hanyang, or Puhan for short.

    Back when I was just getting started, one of the first issues I sought to address was the lack of support networks for rural women. During the agricultural off-season, these women generally had little to do other than play mahjong or chat about family matters. Meanwhile, many struggled to break toxic relationship patterns with parents, in-laws, or abusive husbands.

    As a rural woman myself, I used to wonder: Why can’t our lives be more like those of urban women? I decided to start by organizing a fitness dance class. There was resistance at first: Square dancing had not yet reached the countryside in the early ’00s, and many women told me they “wouldn’t dare” or that they couldn’t dance. But this was mostly because they lacked confidence, and I still believed the activity could help change their mindsets and lifestyles.

    I got a teacher to come from the local branch of the All-China Women’s Federation, and within a month we went from 24 women dancing in my home’s courtyard to roughly 80% of all women in the village. Even the men eventually saw the value in what we were doing. Whereas they would once point fingers at the crazy women dancing, some of the husbands later told me they thought it was good for their wives to dance with “Sister Bing” (me) — in part because it put them in a better mood around the house.

    Just improving women’s moods wasn’t enough, however. Members of our dance group wanted to improve themselves in other ways, too. So in 2001, we decided to organize a study class.

    I found out that 28 of the women in the village had graduated from middle school. I approached them one by one and encouraged them to become team leaders. Next, I organized study groups of three to five people and arranged a joint class for an upcoming Saturday. More than 50 people came that day, including all 28 team leaders.

    That year, there just so happened to be a debate competition between college students on television. The study groups decided to hold their own debates, choosing issues from their everyday lives as subjects. Their debate questions included things like: “Who is responsible for maintaining relations between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law?” and “Is it better to have a son or a daughter?” Everyone took part, and the debate helped village women learn to speak in turn and respect the rules.

    Our organization took its next step forward in 2005, when we got in touch with Wen Tiejun, an influential expert on rural China who formulated the sannong, or “three rural issues” of agriculture, development, and farmers. Wen trained us in how to set up rural cooperatives, and we soon formed seven, including a handicrafts co-op and a paint factory. We also built a 160-acre ecological park.

    Not everything went smoothly from the start, however. For example, we had 12 households involved in the village’s steamed bread workshop. Whenever the bread came out undercooked, everyone blamed someone else. Finding markets was another consistent challenge. Within a few years, most of the co-ops — including the above-mentioned bread workshop, handicrafts co-op, and factory — had failed.

    It was clear we lacked management expertise. To resolve this, we had to rethink our mission. In addition to recruiting talented young people to help improve operations, we needed to clarify our goals. That’s when we came up with the slogan, “quality of life first, economic growth second.” By 2012, when we launched the Cooperative Federation, we had a firmer idea of how to run a cooperative for the good of the village.

    It wasn’t that we didn’t want to make money; we just stopped focusing on questions like, “What can we do to make money?” and started asking “How is our money made?” In other words, we didn’t want to make money if the cost was too high. If the only way to make a profit spinning yarn was to ask elderly residents to work overtime, we’d rather try something else. We’ve preferred setting up small, pleasant workshops instead of large factories, and we’ve opened them to kids from the cities as well as local schools so they can learn more about the production process.

    In addition, since 2012 the Puhan Cooperative Federation has provided child care and other social services to all its members, as well as training, marketing help, and mutual financing arrangements. It also offers more direct economic benefits: Collective purchasing helps villagers protect their rights as consumers and gives them confidence when dealing with the market.

    The local government was, and sometimes still is, unsure of what to make of us, since it might seem like we’ve been doing their job. To us, however, we have just been helping out with something that is near and dear to us: our own village. I’ve interacted with countless exhausted grassroots public officials over the years, and in that time have come to believe that social organizations should take a much larger role in providing public services. The government should focus on formulating policies and regulations, rather than trying to do everything itself.

    There are also important differences between how we do things and how the government does them. Whereas officials tend to prefer providing direct support, we think mutual aid schemes are better at ensuring village buy-in. For example, the state might build an elder care facility for old and retired villagers. This isn’t necessarily wrong, but it can inadvertently detach the elderly from their familial care units, as children come to expect the state to take responsibility for their parents’ care.

    By expecting villagers to take on a more active role in elder care and the provision of other social services, these ties are maintained and reinforced. It also lets us raise collective awareness of the issue. Meanwhile the mutual aid scheme still ensures we can meet baseline needs. The most important thing is getting members of the cooperative to take responsibility for issues that affect their community.

    That’s because the key to revitalizing China’s countryside ultimately lies with its people. Rural residents should be empowered to take the initiative in improving their own lives. Otherwise, revitalizing the countryside will be a long road indeed.

    As told to Sixth Tone’s Fan Liya.

    Translator: David Ball, editors: Yang Xiaozhou and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhang Zeqin.

    (Header image: Village children and their parents participate in a handcrafts workshop in Zhaizi Village, Yongji, Shanxi province, June 1, 2019. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone)