Mahmut Tursun (right) visits farmer Genijan’s house to examine dried apricots in Kashgar in July 2012, during the initial phase of Vizdan (COURTESY OF LIU JINGWEN)
Aygul Ismayil is a typical housewife living in the remote village of Qigirtmak, in northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. She had been depending on her husband's work on a small farm, which only generates 10,000 yuan ($1,534) a year, to feed a family of six.
Qigirtmak is located in the town of Wupu, in east Xinjiang. Due to the scarce amount of arable land in the village, many villagers stayed home without other employment options, worsening the poverty situation in the region even further.
In Xinjiang, there are currently 2.61 million people living under the national poverty line--defined as an annual income of 2,300 yuan ($375) for rural residents--accounting for more than 20 percent of the rural population in the whole region.
"Now I can earn more than 2,000 yuan ($307) per month, which is more than my husband's earnings. It's his turn to take care of the children and do the housework now," said Ismayil.
The change to her family was brought about by the establishment of the Wupu Branch of the New Century Fashion Factory in February 2015, which was set up with the help of a group of community officials who were tasked with alleviating poverty in the village. All of the factory's workers are women who had previously been unemployed.
Since 2014, Xinjiang has mobilized 200,000 officials in different levels to over 8,600 villages to eradicate poverty and improve livelihoods by understanding the real poverty situation and needs of local people.
Even so, the aid group encountered a variety of difficulties in Qigirtmak from the onset. The villagers, for example, were not actively seeking employment from the factory, since they had trouble changing their previous lifestyles.
"The factory was planning to hire 50 workers initially, but less than 10 registered," claimed the leader of the aid group Yusup Resur.
The officials had to talk to the villagers one by one, explaining the benefits of working in the factory. Meanwhile, they promised to offer training on skills and labor laws and regulations before they started working. In addition, the villagers were encouraged to undergo training with 1,000 yuan ($153) in subsidies and 380 yuan ($58) for their meals and transportation during the interim period.
Currently, 50 people have all begun working at the factory. They also exercise every morning, take Uygur and Mandarin language courses at noon, and participate in some entertainment activities organized by the factory and the aid group.
Following the successful introduction of the fashion business, the Xazat Food Co. also opened shop in Qigirtmak. Among the 160 villagers who competed, the company eventually hired 35 workers.
The aid group also established more business organizations based on local conditions, including a housekeeping service center and eight professional cooperatives. Currently, 184 local villagers have new jobs, making up 92 percent of surplus labor forces.
"Our way of life has changed, the living standard is improving and our minds are also changing. We talk more about development, and have started to dress up and entertain ourselves by singing and dancing," said Ahyit Gayiz, a villager and training teacher with the Wupu Branch of New Century Fashion Factory.
Abdu Semet, 27, lives in Yerken County, Kashgar Prefecture in southwest Xinjiang. In 2011, he went to look for work in Aksu City, which is some 450 km away from Yerken. He became a skilled construction worker, but unfortunately suffered an accident at work which rendered him immobile. He had to return to Yerken to be taken care of by his grandma, his only relative. Since then, they had no other source of income except from the subsistence allowance offered by the government.
In 2014, in order to assist the 870,000 people in poverty without working capability in Xinjiang, the regional government increased the monthly subsistence allowances per capita for urban and rural residents from 158 yuan ($24) and 65 yuan ($10) in 2009 to 297 yuan ($46) and 144 yuan ($22) respectively.
Some of the government officials who were designated to reduce poverty in Semet's village, Tatarcag, specifically helped him apply for a 40-square-meter house for low-income families. They also applied for wheelchairs and walking sticks from the local federation for the disabled and gave them to physically challenged villagers.
Besides economic aid, the officials encouraged Semet to challenge himself and to use the Internet. Through interaction with other villagers as well as from partaking in entertainment activities, Semet has now become more optimistic about his future.
Chances for cooperation
Thirty-year-old Mahmut Tursun, nicknamed Amu who is also from Kashgar Prefecture, is more fortunate than Abdu Semet. Amu was born into a farmer's family in Shufu County, 20 km from Kashgar City. He had met his parents' expectations to become a civil servant, and worked in Kashgar's customs office after graduating from college. He nonetheless quit three months later, after meeting Liu Jingwen.
Liu comes from south China's Guangdong Province, which is one of the 19 provinces and municipalities which answered the Central Government's call to support Xinjiang's overall development starting from 2010. The local governments promised to contribute 0.3 to 0.6 percent of their local fiscal revenue to help Xinjiang reach its goal of realizing a well-off society.
Liu came to Kashgar as a volunteer in a project which offered occupational training for disabled Uygurs in 2011.
Amu also volunteered to be a Mandarin-Uyghur interpreter and guide for Liu and other volunteers during weekends. Liu then discovered that most high-quality dried fruits like red dates and walnuts couldn't sell well due to the lack of distribution channels.
"Farmers are at the bottom of the industry chain. The distributors usually offer lower prices since they figure that agricultural products can't be stored long," Liu said. Therefore, Liu and other volunteers decided to help sell those products on Taobao.com, China's largest online retail marketplace.
But at that time, local farmers didn't know what the Internet was, and knew little about selling their products on it. Amu understood Liu's plan and then persuaded farmers to try Liu's ideas.
Their first attempt was a success thanks to the help of some Internet celebrities' recommendations. They called their e-business "Vizdan," literally meaning "conscience" in Uygur, considering that food safety is what customers care about.
"My team is made of people of different ethnic groups. Our products are worthy of our customers' trust," Amu said.
Amu is now responsible for finding new distribution channels and publishing farmers' information online after visiting them on-site, thus making farmers from far away more accessible. "In this way, we can help people know more about Xinjiang and us Uygur people," Amu said.
Amu claimed that after co-founding the Vizdan Trading Co. Ltd. in 2012, he has felt a sense of fulfillment.
On May 1, 2013, Vizdan launched a cooperative, promising to buy local farmers' quality produce at a price 10 percent higher than the market price, share the profits with cooperative members and provide training on farming techniques. In 2014, Vizdan sold 150 tons of products and had over 2,000 households listed as its sellers.
"I'm so grateful for these friends from Guangdong. There wouldn't be so many Uygur farmers benefiting from e-business and farmers' cooperatives without them," Amu said.
"If farmers can benefit from our business, younger generations will choose to come back from cities to the farmland," Liu said. "They need more opportunities to enter the mainstream market, not just financial aid."
Copyedited by Bryan Michael Galvan
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