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Fortune in Tea Leaves
Pockets of poverty among mountains transform into thriving entrepreneurs' hub
By Zhang Shasha  ·  2019-10-21  ·   Source: NO.43 OCTOBER 17, 2019
Baoge Square in Junying Village of Xiamen, southeast China's Fujian Province, on September 9 (WANG XIANG)
The twin villages of Junying and Baijiaoci, perched among high mountains in Fujian Province in southeast China, have several distinctions. In Junying, which has a population of about 1,000, nearly all the families have the same surname—Gao, while in Baijiaoci, with about 1,200 people, all the families are called Yang.

Also, till the 1980s, both villages, virtually cut off from the rest of the world due to poor transport infrastructure, were so steeped in poverty that showers and baths were considered an inessential part of life. But today, it's a different story for both.

A visit for change

In 1986, despite their reputation as producers of excellent tea, the two villages, shrouded in cloud and mist, remained mostly unknown to the outside world as the only road that led to them was a dirt track, narrow and steep, winding up through mountains on one side and cliffs on the other. They were the last place in the province to be covered by bus routes and the lack of transport was one of the factors behind the grinding poverty.

Though Xiamen, the bustling port city where the two villages were located, was one of the first four special economic zones (SEZs) established in China as test beds of reform and opening up, the pockets of poverty still in existence were a matter of concern for the authorities. On April 7, 1986, Xi Jinping, who was then vice mayor of Xiamen, visited the two villages for the first time.

"The road was only 1.6 meters wide then, too narrow for cars," Gao Quanguo, then head of the Junying Villagers Committee, recalled. "I met him at the bridge and then we walked in together."

Xi went to Gao's house after walking around and asked questions about the village. "I made tea for him and the cup was stained by tea leaves due to years of use. But he drank it without hesitation," Gao said. "It was such a heartening gesture that we villagers felt we could share our thoughts and feelings with him."

Gao told the visitor that the village's prime source of income was a tea farm about 20 hectares in area and growing hybrid rice and sweet potatoes.

Xi suggested they plant more tea and fruit trees, which would bring more money, as well as develop the service sector. He also recommended a type of persimmon, a prime cash crop at that time. The village later received a funding of 38,000 yuan ($5,329) from the local government so that they could upgrade their agriculture.

"We planted persimmons with part of the money," Gao said. "Later, we learned it was a premium variety in China."

In Baijiaoci, Xi visited Yang Wenwang during lunch. Yang's six-member family lived in a 10-square-meter house, which was more like a basic shelter.

Yang Mingfu, Secretary of the Baijiaoci Branch of the Communist Party of China (CPC), who was at the scene of the visit, said Xi looked into the pot and found just a little rice in it. "It's hard to imagine that people in the SEZ, even though they live in remote hills, can be as poor as this," Xi said.

"Xi told us that while supporting the poor, it is crucial to keep up their spirit," Yang Mingfu recalled.

Gao Quanyang makes tea for guests in his home in Junying on September 9. He grows his own tea leaves (WANG XIANG)

New focuses

Xi told Yang Qingjie, then head of the Baijiaoci Villagers Committee, "Apart from planting tea and fruits, do not forget to green the mountains."

Nearly 11 years later, on July 14, 1997, Xi visited the two villages again. He was then vice secretary of the CPC Fujian Provincial Committee. In these years, Junying had extended its tea farm area to almost seven times the original size and the narrow road had been rebuilt. Hearing that the persimmons were flourishing, Xi insisted on having a look at them.

"I rode a motorcycle to show them the way. After reaching the parking lot, we walked on the unsurfaced road to the tree farm," Gao Quanyang, then head of the Junying Villagers Committee, said. Xi was satisfied with the tea and the trees but not with the sight of the barren mountains.

"He told us to plant more trees on the mountains while developing industries in the village," Gao Quanyang said. "We hadn't paid much attention to afforestation at first. Xi's farsighted suggestion laid the foundation for the growth of tourism and the way to prosperity. He also encouraged young villagers to find jobs in urban Xiamen and start their own businesses."

In Baijiaoci, Xi visited a school. "He told us to increase investment in education to equip the young generations with the knowledge they need and improve villagers' scientific literacy," Yang Mingfu said.

With more than 100 years of history, tea planting has been the mainstay industry in the two mountainous villages, accounting for more than 70 percent of the local economy at peak years.

"Since Xi's visit in 1986, the villagers competed with one another to expand their tea farms, afraid they would lag behind," Gao Shuzu, chief of Xiamen Hengli Tea, a leading tea company based in Junying, said.

But as the tea production increased, the limited market became an issue. Since his teenage days, Gao Shuzu had been marketing the raw tea grown by his family, relatives and other villagers in neighboring Guangdong Province. However, since the tea was not kept in an air-conditioned warehouse as it should have been, it was liable to catch rot and did not fetch a good price. Eventually, the villagers began to think of setting up a factory in the village to process the tea.

"Xi's visit in 1997 was a boon," Gao Shuzu said. "He thought a factory was a necessity and we received 700,000 yuan ($97,934) from the government's poverty alleviation fund in two installments."

"It was an astronomical figure at that time. We could not raise even 100,000 yuan ($13,991) on our own though we made every effort," he said, "It changed my life and, the whole village."

Villagers waiting to sell home-grown agricultural products to tourists in Junying on September 9 (WANG XIANG)

In May 2000, the factory went into operation. Gao Quanyang estimated that its output could increase the income of the village by 1.5 million yuan ($210,373) per year and the investment could be earned back soon.

The next year, Gao Shuzu received his first order from Japan, the stepping stone that would make his tea business grow larger and stronger. He worked with the village's tea cooperatives to collect harvests from villagers and made exclusive sales.

"Hengli is a family firm," he said. "We lost nearly 20,000 yuan ($2,805) on the first order because we were not familiar with Japanese standards. So the tea was sent back and we made up the consignment once again."

The company that had placed the first order has been buying from Hengli for nearly 20 years. Gao Shuzu's brother has learned Japanese to deal with the Japanese buyers.

"They ordered 100 tons annually at first. In recent years, the orders have increased to 500-600 tons per year on average," Gao Shuzu said. The products are mainly semi-processed tea labeled with Japanese brands. "Their profits are many times higher than ours. We want to learn from them, but we are weak in marketing and branding," he said.

While Japan accounts for 70 percent of its exports, Hengli also sells its tea to Canada, the U.S., Thailand and Indonesia. Exports account for more than 80 percent of its sales.

In the past, Hengli was jokingly referred to as a kind of geriatric home. Machines had not yet become popular to sort the tea and senior villagers were recruited to do it in the tea season. "They would chat and have a good time while working," Gao Shuzu said. "They could earn 400-600 yuan ($56-84) per month."

Today, Hengli has a research and development team to develop new types of tea. Six students from Fujian Agriculture and Forestry University are working under the guidance of professors. "White tea is becoming popular and the experts say our maoxie (a type of tea accounting for 60 percent of the village's output) can produce high-quality white tea. So I plan to produce 100 tons next year. If it sells well, other villagers will follow suit," Gao Shuzu said.

Currently, the annual output value of the two villages' tea industry totals more than 17 million yuan ($2.38 million). In 2018, their per-capita annual net income crossed 25,000 yuan ($3,498), more than 100 times the 1986 figure. It is expected to hit 30,000 yuan ($4,197) in 2019, according to local officials.

Children attend a class in a school in Baijiaoci on September 9 (WANG XIANG)

From tea to tourism

As the two villages embrace industrial transformation, their economic composition is being diversified. The traditional tea industry now accounts for 40 percent of their economic growth, while farmhouse resorts and catering as well as working outside each account for 30 percent.

Gao Shuiyin, former head of Xiying Cooperative in Junying, started his farmhouse and catering business in 2015. "Then we had six rooms, now we have 20," the 45-year-old said. The rooms, some in the traditional Chinese style and some modern, have been designed by his 23-year-old daughter. He and his wife are both the owners and the chefs. Visitors can order local dishes.

The two three-story buildings they own cost nearly 800,000 yuan ($112,285), the money partly coming from the income from the farmhouse and their catering business. However, parts of the walls and roofs were renovated by the local government, which cut his expenses by several thousand yuan.

Currently, the farmhouses in Junying have 169 rooms in total while the number in Baijiaoci is 92.

Stewed pork, the specialty that Gao Shuiyin serves his guests, is homegrown. The meat comes from the pigs raised by another villager, Gao Shuzhang. Gao Shuzhang, who has more than 300 pigs, earns over 1 million yuan ($140,249) per year, making a net profit of 300,000-400,000 yuan ($42,075-56,099).

After completing secondary school, Gao Shuzhang first left the village looking for work. But finding that food was a good business as people were developing higher requirements, he went back to the village to raise pigs with his wife. "The income is higher than working outside," he said. "We can sell the pork on Taobao and social networking platforms such as WeChat as the logistics develop."

The potential seen in tourism made Hengli's Gao Shuzu also diversify to farmhouse resorts. He has over 30 rooms at present, becoming another source of income.

"Tea, as the distinguishing feature of our villages, plays an important role in bringing in tourists, who buy our local agricultural products as well, all of which boosts economic growth," Gao Shuzu said.

The two villages are transforming the tea farms into sightseeing parks for tourists to experience the tea-making process and tea culture. Their tourism revenue crossed 2 million yuan ($280,497) in 2018.

A room in Gao Shuiyin's farmhouse in Junying on September 9 (WANG XIANG)

Green peaks, clear streams

One of the best results of Xi's visits is the greening of the once bare mountains. The forests in the two villages now sprawl over more than 300 hectares and several scenic spots have become popular tourist sites, such as the bridge over the Jiulong River where Xi's car stopped on his first visit to the villages.

A village leader said the water is drinkable. The villages follow a regulation that families should rear their livestock in pens to keep the river and the surroundings clean.

There is an old saying in Chinese: When drinking water, think of its source. The clear water will always remind the villagers how they strove to shake off poverty and lead a prosperous life in harmony with the green mountains, and encourage them to go further.

In 2016, a CPC School was established in the area. Party members from different companies, institutions and government organs visit the village to hear about Xi's interactions with the villagers and see the results. More than 200,000 people have visited the school.

The story of the two villages would remain incomplete without a footnote. Showers are no longer regarded as an unusual custom by the villagers today but as a daily habit. One incentive in the beginning was offering them free shampoo and towels and then prosperity consolidated the habit. "Cleanliness has become part of the public consciousness," Ye Wenbin, Vice President of the Party School of the CPC Xiamen Tongan District Committee, said.

(Reporting from Xiamen, Fujian Province)

Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar

Comments to zhangshsh@bjreview.com

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