Xie Wanju (right), First Secretary of the Communist Party of China Zhadong Village Branch, briefs a Japanese journalist on growing watermelons on August 28 (LI KAIZHI)
Four years ago, when Xie Wanju, a military veteran, was selected to head the poverty alleviation work in Zhadong, a mountainous village in Hechi, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region in south China, he was reluctant. The job came with a lot of pressure and would leave him little time for his family. Though he finally accepted his new position—First Secretary of the Communist Party of China Zhadong Village Branch—all he wanted was the two-year term to come to an end as soon as possible, even before he had gone there.
But when he finally reached the village, the abject poverty he saw there jerked him out of his reluctance. "There was only a small path in the mountains and it took me four hours to reach my first household," Xie told Beijing Review. "I had to clamber up using my hands as well. The house was dilapidated, like the other houses in the village, and couldn't keep the rain and wind out. In their cooking pot there was nothing but corn and wild roots."
It was hard to believe that such dire poverty existed only 20 km from the flourishing district of Yizhou, where he lived. "I must do something here," he thought.
So he threw himself into his new assignment with fervor. His first strategy was to develop new agricultural industries with local characteristics and get roads built to connect the village to the outside world.
The passion fruit is now a prime cash crop in Zhadong, a village in Hechi, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, south China (LI KAIZHI)
China's vast rural areas have long been plagued by poverty. As part of the drive to eradicate poverty by the end of 2020, over 200,000 first secretaries like Xie have been chosen based on their outstanding performance in other jobs, and sent to impoverished villages nationwide to implement targeted poverty alleviation measures suiting individual villages.
Finding a way out of poverty for Zhadong was a huge challenge. Xie explored the village and found it had limited arable land and the soil was of poor quality. Villagers grew some rice, corn and soybean but the crops didn't bring them much money. So he decided he would ask them to plant cash crops instead. After calculations, he picked on the passion fruit, as it can survive poor soil and grows fast.
To his surprise, the villagers rejected his proposal. They didn't think passion fruit, something they had never even heard of before, would lead them to prosperity. They put their trust in the traditional crops grown in the village for generations. Worse still, he found some villagers were resigned to their poverty.
"At that moment, I realized that the core of poverty alleviation is to persuade people to take action; to awaken their desire to end poverty, instead of trying to make them do something against their will," he said.
That was the toughest challenge. To persuade them, Xie and the villagers' committee staff decided to lead by example. They planted passion fruit saplings in a garden and when the fruit ripened, sold them successfully. Seeing that the fruit sold at a good price, some villagers were then swayed into following suit. Together with Xie, they planted saplings in the land owned by the village collective. After the fruit brought them money, the more adventurous villagers began to plant the saplings in their own plots.
At the end of 2019, the village was growing the fruit on almost 20 hectares and some of the villagers had managed to get rid of poverty.
"As Party officials, we have to set an example first," Xie said. "When the fruit ripens, we help the villagers sell it through various channels."
Though passion fruit planting turned out to be a success, not every household could grow it due to differences in the soil of their fields. Xie had to think of other alternatives. The villagers' committee introduced other plant varieties, first growing them themselves and recommending them to villagers only after they brought in profits.
Xie is proud about the fruits and vegetables he has carefully selected for the villagers to grow. For instance, the yellow watermelon has been chosen for its size is right for a family of three. An eggplant variety has been selected for being both tasty and easy to grow.
"We still have six households living in poverty, with 16 members in all. We have already helped them access improved housing and clean drinking water. They now have stable incomes and we are confident we can steer all the villagers toward a much better life," he said with confidence.
When the two-year term ended, Xie was unwilling to leave. "The roads were still under construction and the work to develop industries for poverty alleviation had not been finished yet," he said. He decided to ask for an extension.
Almost three more years have passed since then and Zhadong is no longer the poor village Xie had found on his arrival. It has concrete roads, the villagers have moved into new brick houses, their incomes are growing and so is their happiness.
Currently, Zhadong is awaiting an official assessment as to whether it has met the standards to be removed from the list of impoverished villages. But Xie's work is not over yet, not by a long chalk. His phone keeps ringing with queries, he has detailed reports to write on the work in the village, and he still keeps his hand in the daily farming.
On a scorching hot day, he could be seen donning his straw hat and carrying his scissors and hoe to a passion fruit and watermelon orchard, where he got busy with pruning, watering, digging and removing weeds.
He is also planning future development of the village. His ideas include cattle breeding and rural tourism. To his joy, a lot of young people who used to do odd jobs in the cities have come back. They are now working on the new economic projects.
He often talks to them about the future of the village. "Poverty alleviation is only the first step toward a moderately prosperous life for the entire village, and my work is just the beginning of this first step," he said. "Ultimately, lasting prosperity of the village depends on the young generations' efforts."
(Print Edition Title: Leading by Example)
Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar
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