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    The Gobi Diaries 4: The Vanity Project

    A failed new initiative leaves a party cadre questioning the role of politics in agriculture.

    This is part four in a series. For part three, click here.

    There are only three small factories in our town, so those of us in local government are only sporadically involved with industrial affairs. Out here in the Gobi Desert, agriculture takes center stage. So when spring finally came, my colleagues suddenly found their work piling up.

    Put simply, the town government serves two major purposes in the spring. The first is to ensure that farmers buy grain seed from officially registered firms, and not from private or illegal merchants, who often lure them in with lower prices. This is never as easy as it seems, because farmers are naturally sensitive to swings in the price of grain and would always rather pay less for raw materials. However, it certainly stops them coming to us complaining they’ve been duped into buying fake seeds!

    Compared to the second job, however, seed provision is a piece of cake. This year, the town government also had to set up three special agricultural districts, each complete with greenhouses covering 100 mu of land (around 6.7 hectares). 

    Because all of the land in town had already been divided among the residents, contracting every mu required the agreement of more than 30 people. As if that wasn’t enough, we also had to bring in specialized agricultural entrepreneurs to run the greenhouses. It was an uphill battle from the start.

    Part of the reason why our collective workload rose so dramatically was because this initiative wasn’t our bright idea. It had come from leaders at the county level, who were generally very efficient at issuing directives telling farmers which crops to grow or which animals to raise, but sometimes lacked the on-the-ground knowledge necessary to implement them. In their view, the vast greenhouses would be the best way to utilize modern agricultural techniques and thereby increase farmers’ incomes. So the greenhouse initiative became one of our annual work targets and an important part of our annual performance appraisal.

    At first, I honestly thought this plan was a good idea. Previously, leaders at the municipal level had demanded that farmers in our town raise dairy cows or a breed of sheep native to northwestern China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, efforts for which farmers wholly lacked the expertise and which were perennially unproductive once they were introduced. At least the greenhouses will actually produce something and not waste so many resources, I thought. I quickly found out how wrong I was.

    As vice secretary of the township party committee, I had been made director of one of the working groups responsible for achieving our targets. But this title was mainly nominal; staff only reported back to me now and then, and I mainly spent the days holed up in my office with my other projects.

    One afternoon in early spring, as a cold, watery sun hung lethargically in the clear sky, I was taking a stroll around the yard in front of the town hall. My colleague in the judicial department, Mr. Wu, came out of his office. Seeing me, he walked briskly over. “Secretary Xiao, are you free at the moment?”

    “Of course,” I replied. “Is anything the matter?”

    “The town needs to persuade Mr. Xue to rent his land out for the greenhouse project, but he seems reluctant. Could you come down to the village and speak to him?”

    Xue was the vice director of one of the village committees under my supervision. I promised to take charge of the matter and asked Wu to call on me when he was about to leave. But as usual, by the time someone informed me of what was going on, Xue’s agreement was already a fait accompli. When I went down there, the lease was already signed. How had they persuaded him? Well, nobody said anything about that.

    When all the land had been leased and the ink on the contracts was dry, our office suddenly received an order for army uniforms. They were distributed to every member of staff, who, as it turned out, was to have the honor of becoming a temporary construction worker. To be clear: The greenhouses were still situated on private property that belonged to a third-party contractor, and the deeds themselves had nothing to do with the government. So why the sudden expansion of our job responsibilities?

    Although responsibility for building the greenhouses lay with the contractors, they also knew we had a strict deadline to get the project completed. So they simply dragged their heels until officials from the town government “volunteered” as temporary construction workers. By April, the town hall was practically empty. Everyone was down on the construction sites, and at mealtimes, the air was thick with the smell of dust and sweat.

    Like everyone else, I was expected to pitch in. The structure of each greenhouse was a half-cylinder shape supported by arched metal bars down the middle and covered with a giant sheet of transparent plastic film. The first job was to bend the bars into shape and insert them into the ground in a straight line. Then, we would put the film on before finally going back to stabilize the whole structure.

    All of these steps involved backbreaking work and really should have been carried out by professionals. The strong desert wind whipped across the site and frequently brought the bars crashing down. Within a single afternoon, my shoes and jacket were ruined, and my hand was scraped and bleeding from clinging onto the plastic film. We did that for an entire month, until the greenhouses were finished.

    When April was over and the deadline had passed, I went to Beijing to run a few errands. While I was gone, county government officials came and reviewed our work. By the time I got back to town, though, I found that the roadside greenhouses had been destroyed by wind again, their metal frameworks poking out from the bare earth like skeletons, their plastic film in tatters. Frustrated beyond belief, I said to my colleague, Vice Secretary Mo: “The greenhouses need repairing. Looks like it’ll be another busy month.”

    Mo paused for a second, smiled, then gave me an answer I could scarcely believe. “No need to worry. The county has come and checked it now; they won’t be back until next year. Anyway, some of the farmers have sold off the metal bars already. They can get thousands of yuan for each one, so it’s easy money all around.”

    And with that, the greenhouse project was shelved. I stared blankly back, completely flabbergasted. The knowledge that all our hard work had been for nothing left me feeling utterly bereft. Once again, we had slaved away to see our superiors’ policies through but had not brought any tangible benefit to the local community. At that moment, I understood what can happen when people play politics with our agricultural needs.

    To be continued.

    (Header image: Farmers seed a wheat field in the Gobi Desert, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, April 13, 2009. Zhang Xiuke/VCG)