Baoge Square in Junying Village of Xiamen, southeast China's Fujian Province, on September 9, 2019 (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. 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, 2019. He grows his own tea leaves (WANG XIANG)
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 deputy 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.
"After 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.”
In May 2000, the factory went into operation.
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.
While Japan accounts for 70 percent of its exports, Hengli also sells its tea to Canada, the U.S., Thailand and Indonesia.