June 24th, 2012 | Global Times Officials relocate to rural areas to eradicate poverty one village at a time
Three months ago, Wei Hongzhang, the head of Beihan township in Renqiu, Hebei Province, relocated to Bejiazhuang village, an area that has left a lasting impression on him as one of Beihan’s poorest villages.
“Everything here has touched me deeply. People are poor but warmhearted,” he told the Global Times from his humid office, where the only respite from the summer heat comes from an electric fan. “How could I ask them to install an air conditioner for me when some villagers don’t even have an electric fan? We have to help lift them out of poverty.”
Reviving rural areas
Wei is among 15,000 Hebei officials dispatched to over 5,000 villages across the northern Chinese province to live and work with local villagers between February and December this year.
The officials were selected from different government departments and the People’s Congress of Hebei Province, which has allocated 250 million yuan ($39.28 million) to cover the project’s general expenses in addition to 500 million yuan allocated to the villages to promote their local economies.
The project initially sparked controversy amid claims that it was a waste of money and would have little influence on ailing rural economies.
“People misinterpreted the [project's] purpose. China’s countryside is socially stable, but the aim of the government is to eradicate poverty,” Fang Ning, director of the Institute of Political Science at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times.
Premier Wen Jiabao announced in his government work report in March that the central government would focus on eradicating poverty in rural areas, urging all provincial authorities to help achieve this goal.
This call has been answered by the local governments of Gansu, Hebei, Hubei, Shanxi, Tibet and Qinghai, which have all dispatched officials to live and work with villagers to spearhead the campaign.
The project has drawn parallels with Chairman Mao’s “Down to the Countryside” movement during the 1960s, a policy that required urban youth to relocate to rural areas to learn from farmers.
“This is the modern version of the ‘Down to the Countryside’ movement and aims to help eradicate poverty and improve infrastructure in rural areas,” Guo Weimin, a retired official, told the Global Times.
Reconnecting with reality
Fang agrees that there are some similarities between Mao’s policy and its modern-day equivalent, saying it aims to increase officials’ understanding of some of the country’s most pressing challenges.
“There are more younger officials today than in the past. Over 60 percent of officials are aged under 50, which means most of them grew up in cities and have never lived in villages; they barely know anything about the ‘real’ China,” Fang said.
Renqiu is one of the wealthiest county-level cities in Hebei Province, boasting an average annual per capita income of more than 50,000 yuan. Nevertheless, the city is home to nearly a dozen villages where the average annual per capita income is less than 3,500 yuan.
Wei said he never imagined some locals couldn’t afford electricity before he relocated to the village. One such family in Bijiazhuang still eats dinner by candlelight, Wei said, saying he previously thought such scenarios only existed in his “grandmother’s old stories.”
In order to better fit in with local people, Wei ditched his regular fashionable suits in favor of more modest attire. “I have to dress more like a villager rather than a leader from a wealthy, developed city, otherwise locals might not tell me their real feelings,” he explained.
In each of Hebei’s poorest villages, two or three officials from higher governments now live with the community and are tasked with visiting families to better understand their most pressing difficulties.
Jiao Runsheng, an official from the health department of Zhangjiakou, Hebei Province, has come face-to-face with some of the problems facing locals in Dagou village, Jingxing county.
One of the biggest problems is access to clean drinking water, especially during summer. Villagers predominantly access water from old wells that often contain unsafe amounts of fluorine.
Jiao, upon learning this, met with other officials and the village committee to discuss building a new water supply center this year.
“You can never know the ‘real’ China until you go and live in the countryside. Chairman Mao said in the 1960s that educated youth needed to learn from country folk, but now it’s time for government officials to learn from these people,” Guo said.
Stunt or solution?
Fang noted that for many officials, adapting to life in the countryside can be a difficult transition that involves more than merely going without air conditioning or fashionable clothes.
“These officials don’t have an Audi to drive or five-star hotel accommodation, and they can forget about luxurious liquors such as Moutai or Lafite wines,” Fang said, adding the campaign provided valuable “training for government officials.”
The idea of officials living alongside farmers has been derided by many Web users in the country as a publicity stunt for the government rather than a campaign that will deliver tangible benefits to struggling villagers.
A researcher with the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress told China Central Television last week that government officials on average collectively incur expenses worth a staggering 900 billion yuan annually.
Ye Mingwei, director of society poverty alleviation with the Leading Group Office of Poverty Alleviation and Development in Shanxi Province, said it’s important that the public isn’t misled to believe every official leads a life of luxury.
Ye cited the example of Yuan Chunqing, former Shanxi governor and secretary of the province’s Party committee, on a recent visit to a rural village.
“We don’t have fancy wine or luxurious hotel rooms, but Yuan stayed with us and ate the same food as locals. He also worked in the fields with villagers,” Ye recalled. “Our leaders are practicing what Chairman Mao said when he declared that Party members wouldn’t take a single needle or thread from local villagers.”
By Liu Sha