On August 20, a large-scale campaign involving tens of thousands of officials was launched in southwest China's Sichuan Province. These officials, used to working in urban government agencies, were asked to move their desks to the backward rural areas for next two years.
Besides their desks, they are expected to bring the villages their advanced concepts, valuable networking resources, and help develop the local economy. The pilot program "Officials going to rural areas" has already been implemented more than half a year ago in Chengdu, capital city of Sichuan.
Meanwhile, "farmers going to cities", another parallel program, has also been implemented in Chengdu.
Wenjiang District, a subordinate prefecture of Chengdu City, is putting in place a reform that incorporates villages into a part of a city and changes the identity of farmers into urban citizens.
The pilot reform includes two policies. The first encourages farmers to voluntarily change their identity by giving up their preferential rights of free farmland and free land use in exchange for housing. As new urban citizens, they can enjoy low-priced apartments and social security, benefits only given to registered urban residents.
Another policy focuses on shareholding reform by transforming farmer's rights and interests in village-owned enterprises and land resources into stocks. This pilot program, the first of its kind, entails an effort of united governance between the rural and urban. It has drawn nationwide attention.
The ultimate objective of the reform is to improve coordinated development between the urban and the rural and to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor.
However, the reform has already met many difficulties during its initial implementation.
Suspicion creeps into some villagers' minds when officials are dispatched to their village. The casual village lifestyle also affects official efforts to establish modern enterprise system. Additionally, complicated human relations have smashed the idea of reorganizing the grassroots administration.
From a different perspective, the new urban dwellers will have to bear the heavy pressure in city life. Some farmers have feelings of uneasiness and confusion. They may need more time to adapt from a villager into a shareholder of the "village enterprise".
Some 10,000 officials to help build "a new countryside"
At 7:00 AM, the peak time during a workday, Duan Xiaojun must drive down a different route to the countryside as his workmates commute to their urban office.
Duan needs to drive some 10 km way to Maoding Village, his new workplace hidden away in the mountains. Sometimes landslides block this mountain road on rainy days.
"When I first arrived at the village, I felt despair," Duan said. Maoding Village is one of the 114 poorest villages in Chengdu City. Duan, an office worker employed by the Municipal Education Department, is now going to work here for the next two years as the village's deputy Party secretary.
From January 30, 2007, Duan Xiaojun, together with other urban officials, has been asked to relocate to township governments or rural villages for next two years, in order to promote local economic development and reconstruction of various grassroots organizations. The arrangement was made by the organization department of the municipal Party committee.
"These urban officials are expected not only to help with the development of poverty-stricken areas, but also to bring new ideas to the village administration," said Feng Jun, deputy director of the organization department of Chengdu Party committee.
"The existing personnel inside the village administration are mostly elderly people with inadequate education. It is a serious problem that we need to solve in order to build "a new countryside," Feng said.
Since August 20, the pilot program has been implemented throughout Sichuan Province. Some 10,000 officials selected from the municipal and county-level governments will be sent to the countryside in next four years.
"It is difficult to change old concepts of village governors and villagers in a short period," Duan Xiaojun explained after he had encountered resistance in his efforts to change the status quo.
"Airborne officials to villages"
The pilot program has been initiated in Chengdu. Few officials responded to the call after mobilization began. But when lured by a suggestion that these officials would be promoted if they did well in the countryside, the situation gradually changed.
The village where Duan Xiaojun works is the poorest in Jintang County and has bad infrastructure. The roads are full of mud when it rains. The per capita income is less than 2,000 yuan (US$263). Even today, villagers have to walk a long way to get drinkable water.
"It is a hard thing for an urban citizen to stay there for two years even if he were asked to do nothing," said one anonymous official from the organization department of Chengdu after he visited the village.
Duan Xiaojun had never thought that he would be dispatched there. He is 29-years old and a father with a one-year old child. He felt it was not his business when he saw the mobilization document last December.
"We are used to working in cities and all my workmates felt confused when they got the memo that officials would be sent to the countryside for two years," said Duan.
Many questions came up regarding this pilot program, Feng Jun revealed. Would it be too harsh to work in rural villages? Is it possible to do a good job if the candidate sent had no work experience in countryside? Is it possible to achieve anything in only two years time?
Some policies were put forward by the organization department to encourage officials answering the call. One thousand yuan (US$131) as a relocation fee is promised for every volunteer, together with a monthly subsidy of 500 yuan as well as an annual grant of 5,000 yuan (US$658).
In addition, priority will be given to volunteer officials regarding future promotions or year-end appraisals.
However, a month after the mobilization, only a few answered the call so personnel departments began to talk to suitable candidates on their own.
Duan Xiaojun was one of those candidates selected by the organization department. He graduated from the Sichuan Normal University, with a major in economic management and then he finished his MBA degree at Sichuan University. Duan worried that he would lose some development opportunities if he spent the next 2 years working at a rural village.
But when Duan was told that his work experience in rural areas would be of great benefit to his future development and give him priority for future promotions, he agreed to have a try.
Under the suggestion that volunteer officials would be promoted some moved. From this January to May, a total of 605 officials in Chengdu City went in two batches into rural villages and township governments.
Fear after a loss in asparagus farming
Three months after Duan's arrival at the village, he found a dilemma more stringent than poverty. Most villagers, even the village chiefs, were extremely conservative. Even worse, conflicts do exist among village administration members. "They all feel satisfied with the status quo."
Duan's mission was to increase the villagers' average net income by 800 yuan (US$105) in a year "To achieve this goal, we must develop some industries," said Duan.
Duan learned that the village's moneymaking crops were some vegetables," Also, most young villagers worked outside as migrant workers. "Many financially strapped villagers hesitated to invest in anything because they feared that they would gain nothing in a changing market."
In 2000, the township government planned to provide part of the funds allocated to support fruit cultivation for three villages, including Maoding Village. The other two villages took advantage of it but the Maoding Villagers were afraid that they would gain nothing from their investment and gave no response.
Three years later, the township government conducted a pilot project by providing subsidies to help the village plant asparagus as a crop. A processing plant in town would be in charge of buying the villagers' asparagus products. Some villagers tried it and invested. But the town factory encountered a funding problem and failed to buy the asparagus: the villagers got nothing back. From then on, villagers had lost their confidence in the township government and hesitated to try any new ideas.
To find right economic plants, Duan Xiaojun invited experts from the Chengdu Institute of Agricultural Science and Technology to the village. According to local conditions, experts offered a proposal of planting layered crops with pepper, fruit trees and walnut trees, together with raising chickens. They proposed that each family raise some 100 chickens. The "orchard and chickens" project was Duan's plan to make the villagers rich.
"What tangible benefits can we get?" With the lessons of 2003 in mind, the villagers still doubted his ideas in the beginning.
Xiao Jun organized several meetings to explain to the villagers the ideas of the visiting experts. He also applied for funds of 300,000 yuan (US$40,300) from the Education Bureau to help the farmers reduce their investment risk. Finally, some farmers were willing to try.
Local village cadres have little market acumen
Apart from fruit planting and chicken raising, Duan Xiaojun also registered a factory to process farming produces.
Nevertheless, in the opinions of local village cadres, a processing factory implied a place to do simple packaging and what they needed to do was simply waiting for buyers to come.
"They would not bother to go out to find potential purchasers and seldom paid attention to the market," complained Duan.
However, he admitted, it was an arduous task to foster market acumen among the village cadres.
"When the agricultural investment company came to the village to talk about granting a loan, the local officials didn't even know what to say. They can only passively do as they are told to do," Duan said.
In another village, Wen Guolin, also an official sent to work in villages from the city, met with the same difficulties.
"A manager from the project department of the Agricultural Development Bank of China was irritated by the ignorance of local farmers when he came to the village to talk about business," Wen said.
Village cadres have no sense of the market, let alone understand ‘brand names', he pointed out.
"They appeared at a loss when it came to finance, banks and corporation," Wen continued, "They even don't know what department to go to for trademark registration."
Wen registered a company to develop local hotbed chives industry, but was soon discouraged by the cadres' undisciplined behavior.
"They are not used to working under the modern enterprise system. Instead, their daily routine is still as it was in the past: some work in the morning, some drink too much liquor at noon and some play mahjong all afternoon," Wen said, exasperated.
Another case is Wang Yi. He was sent by the Chengdu urban management bureau to work at Zhugen Village.
Although remote, the village has enchanting natural scenery and also a local hot spring. Based on these conditions, Wang made a proposal to develop agricultural tourism.
"We need to establish a company as a legal person to negotiate with financing corporations," Wang told the village Party secretary.
However, the secretary refused Wang's proposal. Instead, he asked Wang to solve all of the existing problems: power grid reconstruction, road renovations.
Unfortunately, Wang explained, Zhugen Village is located on mountains with its residents scattered around. Power companies are reluctant to invest in such villages. "I tried to persuade the power companies but I failed."
According to Wang's plan, the village could lease their land to developers at low prices. The developers are then entitled to develop the local tourism industry and at the same time they would shoulder the responsibility to improve local infrastructures.
"I've seen such operations work out successfully when I was employed in the urban economic department. But the village officials don't believe me," Wang said.
He criticized local officials for being shortsighted. "They are cunning and concerned only with short-term profits. They only care about several hundred thousand yuan while what I have in mind is tens of millions of yuan and even a hundred million yuan."
Duan Xiaojun agreed with Wang Yi, and added that only when a village gets a project in hand, can it obtain money from the town and city governments.
Duan has been granted more than one million yuan for his projects from the city and county governments.
"Whenever I work on a project, I will explain to the local officials about integration of production, supply and marketing, hoping to gradually give them some inspirations," he said.
Bring more brains to leadership
Duan Xiaojun faced another knotty task. That was to reshuffle the makeup of the village board. But as a non-native, he was totally in the dark about the intricate guanxi -- relationship network -- in the village.
Duan thought it was reasonable to add younger faces to the village core. Having observed for a period of time, he found two eligible hopefuls: Xiao Xinjun and Xu Lvxue. The former was a 31-year-old ex-serviceman with an open mind. The latter was the incumbent village director and secretary concurrently. Yet he was on bad terms with the vice director Liang Yuanguo.
Duan Xiaojun thought Xu was capable and wanted to put him in an important position. The township government also wanted Duan to wield his power to create brilliant and united leadership in the village. His plans failed in the ensuing direct election.
Just days before the direct election, a villager reported Xu Lvxue to the township government. Then he was investigated for alleged embezzlement of money meant for poverty-elimination. But afterwards it turned out that the accusations were part of a hoax masterminded by his political opponents. Xu's problems lay in misinterpreting standard procedures but they could not be considered corruption.
Although he was in the clear, he fell out of favor with the villagers and he withdrew from election for secretary. Yet he was still the candidate for committee member on the ballot.
In September 20, Maoding Village had a contested direct election for the position of secretary and committee members. 30 constituents who had the Party membership cast their votes. Duan Xiaojun was on the ballot of candidates along with the incumbent, Vice Director Liang Yuanguo. In the pre-election held nine days ago, Duan held the lead. But a little later, most polls favored Liang Yuanguo. He eventually claimed the victory.
Duan's two favorites, Xiao Xingjun and Xu Lvxue, also failed to win votes for the village board.
Over 200 attendant villagers ranted and raved about the results, because they thought Liang was not competent. They called him incapable and selfish.
Afterwards they found out that most of the 30 voters had a special relationship with Liang one way or another.
Duan Xiaojun said: "When running for election, Liang emphasized that I was just a transient official here for one-year term. But as the first direct election initiated during the pilot program, its result should be ratified."
Unlike Duan, Wen Guolin and Wang Yi didn't seek election. They explained their reasons by citing their short stay in the village.
Cadres go to the countryside vs. farmers go to the cities
On August 20, more institutional cadres were sent to the countryside. They are not poverty-alleviating cadres. Their main task is to coordinate the development of the cities and the countryside and to build the new countryside. Their coming to the countryside will lay a foundation for more cadres to go to the countryside. Now the Sichuan government is drafting many related systems such as the cadre rotating system and the inspection and supervision system.
The Sichuan "10,000 cadres go down to the grass roots" mobilization meeting was held in Chengdou. This meeting issued a Proposition on Sending 10,000 Cadres to the Grass Roots. The proposition demands that 10,000 cadres have to be sent to the grass roots and that 90% of the institutional cadres should be sent to the countryside rather than to the township governments.
Duan Xiaojun claims that he is performing "a special poverty relief practice". In the past the development of the villages and towns depended on local financial aid. Now city level cadres sent to the countryside bring with them their immense network of resources.
Duan says that his job is to "act as the liaison of the network". He further explains, "Cadres sent to the countryside are not poverty-alleviating cadres. Their main task is to coordinate the development of the cities and the countryside and to build the new countryside. Their coming to the countryside will lay a foundation for more cadres to go to the countryside."
In exploring how to build a long-term effective mechanism, the organization department of the Chengdou Party committee has stipulated two rules and is attempting to set up related systems such as the cadre rotating system and the inspection and supervision system.
The organization department asserts: "In order to realize the optimal integration of outside support with grass roots efforts, we have to pay attention to the achievements of the cadres sent to the countryside and to strengthen construction of the Party organizations at the town and village levels. Only in this way can we avoid the interruption of work brought about by excessive dependence on the cadres sent to the countryside.”
The organization department of the Chengdou Party committee deems that cadres sent to the countryside possess large amounts of organization, government, policy and project resources. Actually sending them to the countryside is a way to transfer the resources of the cities to the countryside.
Duan Xiaojun has the confidence to fulfill the objectives set by the Education Bureau. According to him, many old concepts and backward customs obstruct the transformation process in the countryside. But some one has to go to the fore to push this process.
Walking to the east of Wenjiang station of Chengdou, soon one can see a new community called "Huangxiang Residence". More than 1000 farmer families live in this community. There they have squares for cultural and sports activities, parking lots and bicycle sheds. And there are 24 hour security guards at the entrance to the community.
Wenjiang District is undergoing an experiment of "changing villages into communities". "Farmers" there are going to disappear and their fields have become the shares of the enterprises. These city residents who were once "farmers" no longer live by farming. Land rents have become their main source of income.
In order to carry out this "farmers go to cities" experiment, Wenjiang District has adopted many reform measures such as the "integration of villages and enterprises". Their practice has captured wide attention in Sichuan province and even across China.
Currently the farmers' attitude toward this experiment is rather mixed. It is still too early to say whether they will gain benefit from giving up their lands and going to the cities.
Villagers turn to shareholders
Wang Shijun is the general Party branch secretary of the Tianxianglu Community, currently the largest farmer-gathering region in Wanchun Town. Farmers from four or five villages live here, in places like Hongxing Village and Weixing Village. Wang Shijun, former Party branch secretary of Hongxing Village, never thought that he would become a "citizen."
This community is a joint place between the city and the countryside. It has integrated its water, electricity and gas infrastructure with the city's. It also has reliable community organizations, a police office, a medical service center, bus stops and garbage stations.
Hu Liangwan, vice director of the Agriculture Development Bureau of Wenjiang District, says that the infrastructure construction of the community is far better than that of ordinary cities.
The district began to turn villages into communities since 2005. At that time, lots of land was needed to plant flowers for a flower expo. So the districts proposed to engender a living for the farmers and tidy up the land at the same time. In this way the village established a business to bring in investment.
Thanks to the scale-use of the land, two flower trading centers and a flower production center were set up.
In June 2006, the district government of Wenjiang issued two regulations ensuring social security benefits for those farmers who had enhanced the process and tidied up 980 mu (65 hectares) of land. In April 2006, a share holding company was set up to mainly deal with real estate; all the farmers are shareholders.
Wang Shijun is also the chairman of the company. The company has brought in a big investment item -- an amusement park that takes up most of the company's land.
Worries after "losing land"
Xu Maoqun, who lives at the "flowers community", recently bought a TV with rear projection screen and a refrigerator of very large size with double doors. The apartment measuring 105 sq m and the new community life has changed Xu Maoquan's original lifestyle.
Women living in the community gather at the square for recreation and sport in the evening. They enjoy fitness dances under the guidance of a teacher rather than spending their evening playing Mahjong.
Xu Maoqun, 41, said that her living conditions are better than before, but now she feels more stress.
Xu grew vegetables and grains and also raised pigs and chickens before she moved into the community. She did not have to spend money for firewood and drinking water; her family was completely self-sufficient.
But Xu Maoqun makes her living by receiving compensation for "losing land" after she relocated into the apartment.
Compensation for "two give-ups" of farmers means that farmers who voluntarily give up their land contract for managerial rights and the right to use housing sites can live in urban areas and enjoy social security benefits equal to urban workers.
The "two give-ups" originally indicated that farmers voluntarily abandoned their housing sites and their right of land management. In fact, farmers are required to give up their land for developing projects or urban planning. Only men over 60 and women over 50 can enjoy the social security benefits. Only Xu's mother-in-law in her family receives 180 yuan (US$24) per month as a social security payment.
Farmers also can receive income from their land. Xu's family has a piece of land of more than 2 mu (1 mu=1/15 hectare), it was collected for unified management. 1 mu was sold and Xu's family has received 25,000 yuan (US$3,359) as land compensation.
The rest is under a lease, which brings 1,500 yuan (US$202) for the family every year, Xu said.
Xu's family fixed income is now is less than 800 yuan after they moved into the community. The cost of living for the family per month is about 600 yuan, including water, electricity, coal gas and rice.
Xu has not found a suitable job since she moved into the urban area. Her son will take the college entrance examination and go to university next year. Xu is very worried about her son's tuition fees. She has to scrimp and save for her expenses from now on.
"There will be no countryside"
To ensure an adequate living standard for farmers who have lost their land, community committees have also function as labor security stations. These community committees recommend job opportunities to the villagers. All the information concerning labor supply and demand is collected by community committees. The employment rate of farmers who have lost land has reached 90% at the Tianxianglu Community as of August of this year, according to community statistics, said Wang Shijun.
A large construction project to build an amusement park was introduced and the farmers are given priority in arranging for job placement regarding operating departments of the project. The urbanization of farmers is to set them free from the land so they can work in urban areas, said Wang Shijun, secretary of the general Party branch of the Tianxianglu Community.
More than 1,200 people are employed in the amusement park construction project. 500-600 employees are villagers from Wanchun Town and 300 are from the Tianluxiang Community.
Success and failure of the exploration of the Tianluxiang Community pulls at the nerves of both Wenjiang District and Chengdu. Under the influence of changing villages into communities, Wenjiang District has been among the top ten economies at the county level for years in Sichuan Province; their income gap between urban and rural residents is lower than average in Chengdu and the country.
Wenjiang District has disadvantages and advantages as the first in Chengdu to realize the integration of urban and rural areas, Li Gang, secretary of Wenjiang District Committee, told reporters.
Ten towns in Wenjiang District have been changed into streets, with different places taking new names. All the villages in Wanchun Town are expected to become communities within 3-5 years. Afterwards there won't be any more countryside, Wang said.
(China.org.cn November 7, 2007)