Communities in Zhejiang have gone through a two-decade makeover
By Lu Yan  ·  2023-10-27  ·   Source: NO.43 OCTOBER 26, 2023


Tourists visit Yucun Village in Anji County, Zhejiang Province on September 22. The village is a model for ecological protection (XINHUA) 

Many visitors travel to Tongling Village in Wencheng County to get some fresh air and relish a peaceful sleep at night. With a forest coverage of more than 96 percent, the village is known as a natural oxygen bar for its outstanding air quality.

Located by the Tongling Mountain National Forest Park in Zhejiang Province, the small village has been focusing on developing wellness tourism, or travel associated with the pursuit of maintaining or enhancing one's personal wellbeing. For years, it has been working not only to improve businesses such as restaurants and hotels, but also to upgrade living conditions for locals, especially seniors and children. New facilities include a square for leisure activities, a canteen for the elderly and a gym.

However, some two decades ago, these comforts and conveniences were absent. Residents at that time lived in a backward village full of shabby old houses and roads littered with rubbish. A debris flow caused by a typhoon in 2005 made things worse. Houses were torn down and village facilities were destroyed.

The disaster was also a turning point toward a new life for the village. A provincial project for improving villages provided funding and other support and, after the disaster, residents, led by local authorities, began restoring their homes. New houses were built, roads were cleared up and the dwelling environment became clean and green.

The provincial project is named the Thousand Villages Demonstration and Ten Thousand Villages Renovation Project. Launched by the Zhejiang provincial authorities in June 2003, it aims to renovate 10,000 administrative villages in the province and transform 1,000 of them into models of moderate prosperity.

For 20 years, the project has turned thousands of villages like Tongling into beautiful places, and fundamentally changed the face of the province's countryside.

Rural reform 

But the project has brought more to the villages than just better housing. New forms of business, including rural tourism, ecological agriculture and rural e-commerce have been booming in Zhejiang, allowing rural people to live a well-off life without sacrificing the natural environment.

Anji County, the bamboo forests of which served as the backdrop for the martial arts battle scene of the Oscar-winning film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, is also known for its efforts to promote both ecological conservation and agricultural production.

The local agricultural authority has encouraged farmers to plant rice because in addition to yielding grain, paddy fields also help improve the local wetland ecosystems. The cooling effect of one hectare of rice paddy is equivalent to more than 100 air conditioners for home use. During the summer flood season, rice paddies maintain a water level of 15 cm, and each hectare holds 1,500 cubic meters more water than dry land of the same size, playing a role in conserving water in the soil and regulating flood peaks. Now, rice farmers receive subsidies based on the size of their paddies. The rice planting area in the entire county this year has increased by over 466.67 hectares compared to 2022.

In 2003, of the 34,000 villages in Zhejiang, 30,000 were challenged with serious environmental problems. Now, 90 percent of the villages in the province meet the national environment standard for a beautiful village.

Qiu Liqin is a farmer in Lujia Village in Anji. Before the province-wide project began, the village had no waste management system, with rubbish left uncollected and villagers having no choice but to carry buckets of sewage to dump in rivers, heavily polluting them.

Under the project, the village began restoring the environment by tackling sewage and solid waste disposal, and by upgrading roads and rural toilets. But many villagers were reluctant to change their old habits. "Some even complained that we had started a fuss over nothing," Qiu said.

Changes took place slowly, both in the environment and in people's thinking. With water becoming clearer and less smelly, an increasing number of villagers began to join the efforts and protect their home from pollution.

On September 26, 2018, Qiu shared Lujia Village's story at the United Nations headquarters in New York City as she accepted the UN Champions of the Earth Award, the UN's highest environmental honor, on behalf of Zhejiang for implementing the Thousand Villages Demonstration and Ten Thousand Villages Renovation Project.

"The achievement was the result of teamwork," Qiu said, adding the project has laid a solid foundation for the village to tap into its natural landscape and develop rural tourism.

According to official statistics, the annual per-capita disposable income of rural residents in the province has increased from 5,431 yuan ($742) in 2003 to 37,565 yuan ($5,136) in 2022. As a reference, the annual per-capita disposable income of rural residents across China in 2022 was 20,133 yuan ($2,752), according to data from the National Bureau of Statistics.

Ace administration 

Generally speaking, China's rural areas are less developed than their urban peers, a fact reflected in the income gap between them. The per-capita disposable income ratio of urban and rural residents across China was 2.45 in 2022. Facilities and infrastructure in the countryside are also less advanced.

Through the development of Zhejiang's rural areas, the income ratio of urban and rural residents in the province has narrowed from 2.43 in 2003 to 1.90 in 2022, the lowest in the country.

However, the development of the rural areas means more than just narrowing an economic gap and developing infrastructure. Nor does it mean turning villages into cities. Instead, the Thousand Villages Demonstration and Ten Thousand Villages Renovation Project aims to retain the distinctive characteristics of rural areas and let them choose their development models according to local conditions.

One of the project's distinct aspects is to enhance village governance. New models of village governance have taken shape based on increasing villagers' participation in local governance as well as their share of the development benefits.

Villagers are encouraged to participate in discussing local affairs and reaching consensus to make decisions. They are also increasingly active in managing social affairs.

In Xiaogucheng Village in Yuhang District of Hangzhou, capital of Zhejiang, stands a 200-year-old camphor tree. After the launch of the Thousand Villages Demonstration and Ten Thousand Villages Renovation Project, "when issues concerning villagers' livelihood arose, such as demolishing walls, building roads, and renovating farmhouses, villager representatives sat at a table under this tree and held a meeting to discuss the issue," Lin Guorong, head of the village branch of the Communist Party of China, told Farmers' Daily newspaper.

The meetings under the tree represent village administration based on discussion and consensus building. Lin said although the venue of the meeting has been moved from under the tree to a tearoom or online, the model of discussing issues together has not changed.

Similarly at Jingshan Village, a dispute was solved at the beginning of this year through discussions among villagers. During the Spring Festival, the most important holiday for Chinese people, many tourists visited Jingshan on self-driving tours, resulting in a shortage of parking spaces in the scenic area.

To address the problem, the village invited representatives of both villagers and tourists to brainstorm a solution. After discussion, they agreed on a plan to build parking spaces in the village, which uses idle spaces in villagers' courtyards, installing intelligent parking equipment and setting parking fee standards.

Before May 1, the village successfully built many parking spaces. Now, tourists can book their parking space online and villagers can receive income from becoming a private parking lot owner.

(Print Edition Title: Changing Village Vibes) 

Copyedited by G.P. Wilson 

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