The 'grape' Party chief

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"When you grow one mu (666 square meters) of grapes, you will shake off poverty. When you grow two mu (1,333.33 square meters) of grapes, you will lead an affluent life." This is a popular saying in Zhongfang County, central China's Hunan Province. Thanks to the policies made by the county committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC), local people have achieved success in poverty reduction and economic development.

Zhang Xia (L) harvests grapes with local farmers in Zhongfang County of Huaihua City, Hunan Province during an inspection tour in 2012.

Zhang Xia (L) harvests grapes with local farmers in Zhongfang County of Huaihua City, Hunan Province during an inspection tour in 2012.

Zhang Xia, a member of the Dong ethnic group who was born in 1973, served as the county's Party chief between 2011 and 2015. It was by her suggestion that local people engage in large-scale grape cultivation, and Zhang was nicknamed the "grape Party chief."

Zhongfang County has a long history of growing grapes. However, before Zhang took office there, no one had thought of integrating the previous scattered farming business into a large-scale industry. When Zhang arrived in the county, she studied all the policies made by the previous Party committees and carried out a thorough investigation into the county's conditions. After learning what the county needed and what it had, she proposed that the agricultural industry should be prioritized, that modern methods should be used in grape cultivation and marketing, and that the development of secondary and tertiary industries should be based on grape cultivation.

Thanks to Zhang's accurate analysis, Zhongfang County now has 45,000 mu (30 square kilometers) of grape gardens, which brought an additional income of 320 million yuan (US$48.64 million) to some 20,000 local farmers. In 2015, the normal market price per 500 grams of grapes was 2 yuan (US$0.3). A farmer in the county could make at least 8,000 yuan (US$1,216) a year with one mu of grapes. In China, the poverty threshold is 2,300 yuan (US$349.6) a year and growing grapes can rid them of poverty and help them live a prosperous life.

As Zhongfang County became increasingly famous nationwide for growing grapes, local people began to develop the wine industry as suggested by Zhang. They managed to produce a number of outstanding wines and attract large investments. In 2015, the county government signed a contract with Hailian Group to build a high-end winery. A grape research center was also established in the county.

The grape cultivation and wine production business also boosted the development of tourism. In June 2015, Zhongfang County's grape valley became a national AAA level scenic spot and attracted more than 100,000 tourists a year.

"I believed that as long as we choose the correct kind of leading industry, the people will find a way to get rich," Zhang said. In June 2015, Zhang was honored as one of China's best county-level Party chiefs. In September 2015, she became the vice mayor of Huaihua City.

Before Zhang left Zhongfang County, she made another proposal concerning local development, advising the county to utilize its geographic advantage as it is located at the border region of five provinces. "In addition to promoting local tourism, Zhongfang needs to become a transportation hub that connects all the scenic spots in southwest China," she said.

In September 2015, the Zhongfang County government cooperated with the local railway department and launched a special tourism route connecting the county with the provincial capital of Changsha with high-speed trains. Thanks to Zhang's policies, the county's tourism and economic development reached new heights.

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