The idea of voting a trustworthy village head had never occurred to Zhao Yongxiu, a 50-year-old farmer in Dawang village of Hebei Province about 400 km from Beijing, until the arrival of a new assistant village head with a college degree.
"We had never cared about who was in the position because the appointment of 'leaders' had nothing to do with us ordinary people," said Zhao, who used to take it for granted that "leaders" made decisions and the villagers they followed.
But Zhao and 1,300 other villagers changed their minds after Zhao Shufang, 27, came to work as their assistant village head shortly after graduating from Nankai University in Tianjin, one of the country's most leading universities, in July 2005.
"At the beginning, the villagers had little awareness of democracy. They even didn't know they had the right to vote and stand to be elected. The village heads didn't let villagers have their say, which often led to quarrels and scraps," Zhao Shufang recalled.
"Only when the villagers trust their leaders can they live in harmony and work together to achieve wealth," she said. "But when I tried to talk about it with people, their first response was 'not interested'."
Over one month she visited more than 300 households and finally talked them into voting.
"Zhao is a college graduate and she knows the law. After listening to her, we began to understand our rights. Last year, I voted for a person I trust," the farmer Zhao Yongxiu said.
In addition to the village head, the villagers also voted to elect 20 representatives in last year's election, which almost all the villagers attended.
"The villagers now vigorously participate in voting those they like and trust and the village heads will consult villagers before making decisions," said the vice party secretary Duan Shuguo.
Duan credits the change in attitude towards voting in rural areas to college-graduate village heads like Zhao Shufang, who brought fresh ideas to the countryside.
From June 2005, the Chinese government has guided and encouraged college graduates to work in rural areas with the goal of installing at least one college graduate in every village within three to five years.
Zhao is one of the tens of thousands college-graduate village officials across the country.
This year, the central government will expand democracy at the community level, improve the system for transparency in government, factory and village affairs, and ensure that people are able to exert their democratic rights in accordance with the law, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said on March 5 in his work report.
"College graduates are more knowledgeable and open-minded. Their work in villages is conducive to speeding up overall rural development," said Dong Jingwei, a member of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).
This year's "No. 1 document" issued jointly by the State Council, China's cabinet and the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, reiterates the policy of encouraging college graduates and secondary vocational school graduates to work in villages to boost rural development.
In Beijing, 2,000 college graduates were selected last year to work as village party secretaries. The Beijing municipal government has announced that another 3,000 college graduates will work as village officials this year.
The shrinking job market in urban areas has made more college graduates choose to work in rural areas since the government promised them priority when seeking new jobs in governmental departments or large companies after three years of service in villages.
"But there is still a long way to go before the village heads really embrace and practice grass-roots democracy," said National People's Congress deputy Guo Chengzhi, also a village head. "They are used to having the only say and are still rooted to the patriarchal system."
(Xinhua News Agency March 14, 2007)