When Xi Changlin, a former oil worker who now runs a homestay business in his home village Zhangjiagou, found the power supply insufficient for his guests, he turned to village official Ma Jian for help.
Ma, a government worker in Yan'an, northwest China's Shaanxi Province, is stationed in the village on a two-year term under the government's poverty alleviation program. His title is first secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Zhangjiagou Village Branch.
"The job requires me to stay in the village five days and four nights a week, coordinating efforts to help villagers improve their lives," Ma said.
Every village in Yan'an has a coordinator like Ma. Although absolute poverty has been eradicated citywide, first secretaries continue their work to consolidate the progress made and seek further development.
Ma Jian, First Secretary of the Communist Party of China Zhangjiagou Village Branch in Ganquan County, Yan'an, northwest China's Shaanxi Province (WANG XIANG)
The go-to guy
Zhangjiagou, with a population of some 900, lies in a hilly area in the south of Yan'an. The village is the gateway to the Yucha Canyon, similar to the Antelope Canyon in Arizona, the U.S. With the canyon gaining popularity in the recent couple of years, tourists have poured into the area, where villagers have started family hotels.
Since he came to work in Zhangjiagou in April last year, the accommodation and catering industry has been Ma's priority. Requesting power suppliers to upgrade the village power grid is one of the several things that he has done to promote the industry.
"Ma is a great helper and has brought about a lot of changes," Xi said.
For instance, he organized a cooking contest last year, where family hotels showcased their dishes. The judges were invited from prominent hotels in Yan'an.
"The contest aimed at improving the services of the homestay businesses," Ma said. "Only with good services can they become financially sustainable. They should not damage their reputation with exorbitant prices but poor quality."
Ma has also done matchmaking for family hotel owners with online hotel booking platforms so that they can attract more tourists.
First secretaries are active players in China's poverty alleviation campaign. Selected and dispatched to villages by CPC committees at higher levels, they are part of the village leadership together with members of the village CPC branch and the villagers' committee. They are tasked with helping devise village development plans, seeking funding to resolve transportation, water, power supply and other practical problems, and enhancing villagers' capability of self-governance.
In Yan'an, each Party and government department as well as public institution is entrusted with supporting one village. Ma, 48, is an official with the Yan'an New District Management Committee, which is overseeing the development of a 38-square-km new city area on the outskirts of Yan'an. The committee has not only sent a first secretary to Zhangjiagou but also provided help in other ways. For instance, it raised 2 million yuan ($290,800) to renovate roads in the village and build a recreational square with sports and performance facilities.
In addition, the committee finds job opportunities for needy villagers. Committee officials also helped secure donations for a family to treat their 12-year-old boy for cerebral palsy.
"We follow a household-specific poverty alleviation policy," Ma said. "People in this village used to rely on corn planting for a living. It required backbreaking labor but the output was unstable, varying with climate conditions. Now we have different kinds of industries—homestay businesses, raising pigs and chickens, and growing vegetables in greenhouses."
A visitor parks in the courtyard of a family hotel in Zhangjiagou Village on July 8 (WANG XIANG)
First secretaries like Ma all value a down-to-earth attitude. Zhou Gang, First Secretary of the CPC Wangwan Village Branch, Yichuan County, is from Yan'an University, which helps the village with its talent pool. Agricultural experts come to instruct farmers on how to grow vegetables and fruits in greenhouses. Farmers also attend lectures at the university.
Another focus of Zhou's work is to encourage more young people to join the Party. The village currently has 17 CPC members, most of them older than 50. "Party members play an exemplary role in a village," he said. "They are expected to unite and lead other villagers in their efforts to develop rural businesses for higher incomes."
Deng Guotao, a 30-something official with the Wenanyi Town Government, Yanchuan County, has worked in Hejiahe, a village under the administration of the town, as first secretary for four years.
"The job calls for establishing rapport with farmers. One has to work in the fields to learn about their needs and assess the situation on the ground," he said. "It is impossible for you to do a good job if you spend most of the time in your office."
For instance, when explaining government policies, he noted, a first secretary must avoid jargon and use language familiar to villagers.
Speaking of his future plans, Deng said he would like to devote his career to rural and agricultural development. "Even when the position of first secretary is no longer needed after the poverty alleviation campaign ends, as a town government employee, I will continue to work in rural areas," Deng said.
Zhang Yangang, Secretary of the CPC Xinhu Village Branch, Yichuan County, said the first secretary in his village, Wang Wenjie, has helped build a stronger village leadership, adding that Wang is very good at mobilization, especially when it comes to anti-drought and anti-frost efforts. Xinhu specializes in apple cultivation.
"We have a WeChat (a popular instant messaging app) group to facilitate communication among village leaders. When problems arise, we can discuss them promptly and take immediate action," Wang said.
The deployment of first secretaries ensures the government's poverty alleviation decisions are effectively implemented with a four-tier management system at the city, county, township and village levels, said Ji Xionghua, a professor at Yan'an University, who does research on Yan'an's poverty relief program.
First secretaries also help strengthen the CPC's organizations at the primary level. In addition, through establishing closer connections with the people, the officials can improve their competence and political conduct, Ji said.
Ma said he had not worked in rural areas before he served as first secretary in Zhangjiagou. At first he was not clear about what to do. After attending the training provided for first secretaries, he adopted a learning-by-doing approach.
"I began to learn more about the village, the villagers and their hopes and concerns," he said. "It is my duty to help them address their most pressing problems and difficulties."
(Reporting from Yan'an, Shaanxi Province)
Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar
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