The fight for development in central China’s countryside

 A village chief in rural Henan brings both generosity and the implementation of well-planned projects

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Villagers eat their favorite fentiao in front of their home.

By Hu Zhoumeng

Nestled at the southern foot of the Taihang Mountains, Peizhai Village in Zhangcun Township, Huixian City, is located in an area with the most severe water scarcity found in the northern part of central China’s Henan Province. For hundreds of generations, local people have simply subsisted by growing sweet potatoes and wheat due to a lack of water and other natural resources, as well as an absence of viable transportation linking the small mountainous village with the outside world.

A decade ago, farmer-turned entrepreneur Pei Chunliang returned to his hometown, Peizhai, determined to lead his fellow villagers out of poverty. Over the years, dramatic changes have taken place in and around the village. Wells have been dug, rows upon rows of greenhouses built, reservoirs constructed and a commercial street established. Locals’ per capita annual income now exceeds 10,000 yuan (US$1,460).

Beginning in 2010, as many as 23 neighboring villages gradually merged with Peizhai to eventually form what is now known as Peizhai Community, home to more than 15,000 residents. Along with the emergence of the community, Pei Chunliang, now serving as the Party secretary of the Peizhai Community, the Party secretary of Peizhai Village and director of the Peizhai Villagers’ Committee, has garnered wide acclaim and respect.

Clear Water Flows

An indigenous villager of By Hu Zhoumeng Peizhai, 45-year-old Pei was forced to drop out of school and find a job to help support his impoverished family at the age of 13. When his father passed away three years later, his family could not afford a funeral until their countrymen crafted a coffin of wood cut from trees and bought a shroud with money raised thanks to the leadership of the head of the village. Pei still remembers her mother’s words: “How can we repay their kindness?” Ever since, a deep feeling of gratitude has held a special place in his heart.

Before he began running a restaurant which allowed him to earn enough for adequate food and clothing, Pei worked a variety of jobs from brickmaking to home appliance maintenance, cutting hair, photography and cooking noodles. Later, with the first pot of gold he earned by selling marble in Beijing, as well as funds from friends, his business gradually expanded to cover a wide range of other areas, including mining, the hospitality industry, machinery and cement production.

In 2005, thanks to the initiative of the then Party secretary of the village, the Peizhai people joined together to invite Pei to serve as their new chief. Seeing the villagers’ expectant eyes and thinking of their kindness that he still needed to repay, Pei looked forward to the challenge ahead.

In the past, Peizhai suffered badly from drought. Insufficient water storage due to very limited rainfall in the spring could hardly meet the needs of daily use, while occasional summer downpours even worsened the situation by flooding the entire village. Locals’ drinking water only came from shallow wells in which the water was often contaminated, risking the health of the villagers.

One of the first things Pei did after taking office as director of the Villagers’ Committee was to pour 830,000 yuan (US$120,000) of his own money into digging a 530-meter-deep well to supply clean water. Next, he invested a sum of 8.6 million yuan (US$1.25 million) in an irrigation project intended to divert water from the Shimen Reservoir — located about 100 kilometers away — to Peizhai. The project’s construction took nearly three years and involved almost all the villagers — men and women, young and old. In March 2010, a 5,000-cubic-meter water storage pond was built, from which the water makes its way to various fields throughout the village via a 1,100-meter-long underground pipeline. In view that the water storage pond is subject to seasonal influences, which may not secure sufficient water resources for developing highefficiency agriculture, the village leadership decided to construct a reservoir based on a local deep gully to collect water diverted from the Sanjiaokou Reservoir about 100 kilometers away, in addition to rainwater.

According to designs, the Peizhai Reservoir takes advantage of a natural gully and features walls straight up and down. Construction initially proceeded as planned. However, a summer downpour washed away the newly erected foundation by 30 to 40 meters, dampening the villagers’ enthusiasm. Many began to doubt the architectural approach, and some even thought of giving up on the project.

“As the village’s leader, I must not sway,” Pei told himself. “I should remain confident, while also encouraging others to keep on as well.” With firm belief in the design plan mapped out on the basis of field investigation, he required Party members and public servants to make house calls to encourage the villagers. Time proved him correct. In the three years since the reservoir was completed, there haven’t been any leaks.

Construction of the reservoir cost some 60 million yuan (US$8.7 million), of which 1 million yuan (US$145,000) was donated by residents of Peizhai and other individuals and organizations, including 73 yuan (US$10) from students of the Zhangcun Township Primary School. The village’s leadership felt truly moved by the example set by the young students, whose donations were mostly composed of small coins.

With a storage capacity of 800,000 cubic meters, the Peizhai Reservoir benefits more than 30,000 people living in Peizhai and its peripheral towns, as well as nearly 1,500 hectares of arable land. Thus, Peizhai has steered itself into the fast lane of development, seeing the rise of eco-agriculture and characteristic tourism.

Peizhai

Finding Ways to Make Money

In 2006, with an investment of 30 million yuan (US$4.36 million), a barren hill at the southern end of Peizhai Village was razed for the construction of a new residential area called Peizhai New Village. Two years later, each one of the roughly 500 villagers left their old adobe houses, where outside air and rain could seep in through walls and roofs, and moved into new homes. Now that the villagers were well sheltered, Pei Chunliang began to shift his focus towards how to help them find work, so that they could make money on their own.

From generation to generation, the people in Peizhai have remained strongly attached to the soil, both economically and sentimentally. Quite aware of this, and considering the fact that the per unit output of organic vegetables would be four times that of grain, and even 10 times that of fresh cut flowers, Pei reclaimed 40 hectares of arable land in 2010 to build glass greenhouses and geothermal greenhouses for growing vegetables and flowers. However, the issues regarding greenhouse growing, including water sources, cultivation techniques and marketing, seemed daunting to local farmers, who had been traditionally engaged in growing sweet potatoes, peanuts and wheat.

To dispel their worries, Pei twice led the farmers to Shouguang in eastern China’s Shandong Province to learn the basics of greenhouse growing. The trips encouraged the farmers, and some decided to try their hand at the practice. To support the pioneers, Pei Longxiang, deputy Party secretary of the village, established a vegetable and flower planting cooperative, which specializes in seeds, planting techniques and marketing. The village leadership also invited experts from local agricultural and technological departments as well as the Henan Institute of Science and Technology to provide both classroom and field instruction for the villagers.

At the beginning, fearing weak Features sales which he believed would pour cold water on the villagers’ enthusiasm, Pei Chunliang erected advertising billboards along expressways, funding the construction of the billboards himself. With the inclusion of special phone numbers on the billboards, potential buyers were given an easy way to contact growers. Sales of greenhouse vegetables increased dramatically. At present, Peizhai Community’s high-efficiency agricultural cultivation bases have expanded from 17 hectares in 2010 to 100 hectares, involving 750 greenhouses of various types and the participation of some 1,200 villagers.

‘Start from My Cousin’s Place!’

When the Peizhai New Village was completed at the end of 2008, the local commercial street remained in disrepair, and was less than 7 meters in width. After discussion with representative villagers, the village leadership decided to expand the commercial street to 25 meters wide and compensate the old establishments with additional spaces. Since many of the shops had only been operating for a few years, this decision was met with reluctance and even opposition from local business owners.

Pei Chunliang realized that the renovation of the commercial street could not proceed unless his own family took the lead. “Start from my cousin’s place!” he proclaimed.

Pei’s cousin owned a motorcycle repair shop on the street. His garage welcomed the renovations. Other Party members followed suit, dismantling their own shops. Seeing this, villagers no longer complained. The renovation project was completed in three phases. The previously shabby street vanished amid the dust of bulldozers, replaced by more than 900 new commercial houses lining a brand new wide street. Supermarkets, restaurants, beauty salons and dance studios have been established, making the street one of the most bustling districts of Zhangcun Township.

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Pei Chunliang (right) examines flowers growing in a greenhouse

A Priceless Asset

Just 10 years ago, Peizhai Village was in the depths of poverty. Villagers would choose not to vaccinate their children in order to save a sum equivalent to US$1.30.

Back then, locals lacked education relating to personal health, which a young man nicknamed Sanniu, among many others, suffered from. Seemingly strong and robust, Sanniu had high blood pressure, but did not see it as an issue. One night, as the telephone rang, Sanniu rose from his bed to pick it up, but suddenly fell ill. Just five minutes later, he was dead.

“This would not have happened if he was health-conscious and had regularly taken antihypertensive agents,” Pei Chunliang sighed. “For a rural family, the loss of a young or middle-aged worker is tantamount to seeing the sky fall.”

To prevent such tragedies from occurring again, Pei began to use billboards to educate villagers about their health. He set up fitness facilities on public squares. Each year, he invites medical specialists from nearby towns to provide physical examinations for villagers, and his efforts have borne fruit. In recent years, longevity among the villagers has increased, with a great number of octogenarians, in contrast to the past when very few lived into their 70s.

Creating a pleasant, healthy and comfortable environment is another priority. In addition to garbage classification, several designated persons clean the streets every day. In the past, the villagers were unaware that flies and mosquitoes can transmit serious diseases, so such insects could be found everywhere. Nowadays, thanks to the Party Committee’s efforts in spraying anti-insect agents throughout the village on a regular basis, the number of flies and mosquitoes has decreased greatly, and the locals have enjoyed the benefits of a clean, healthy environment. Currently, a sewage treatment plant is under construction, and when completed, it will filter and recycle domestic wastewater before storing it for irrigation.

While ensuring that all the villagers are adequately fed and clothed, Pei also attaches importance to enriching their cultural lives. He established a Cultural Corridor which, apart from hosting various art performances each Tuesday and Saturday, sees elderly lovers of the Henan-based Yuju Opera in Peizhai and from neighboring villages regularly gather to flex their vocal chords. Art troupes from Huixian County and Xinxiang City have also been invited to perform here.

Children, too, benefit from such programs. During winter and summer breaks, dozens of university students come to the village to teach its youngest citizens singing, dancing and painting, as well as to tell them stories about the world outside the village.

Thanks to his efforts, the Peizhai Primary School has taken on a new look, and many university students from povertystricken families have benefited from financial aid.

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Children listening carefully to their teacher in the village’s kindergarten.

Aiming Higher

“Peizhai must be prepared to answer every call of the central government,” Pei reminds himself. He has been serving as a deputy to the National People’s Congress (NPC) for nine consecutive years, and each year he brought his proposals on new countryside construction to the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Additionally, he brings the Premier’s Reports on the Work of the Government back to the village.

“My proposals for the 2017 NPC session still focus on public health and education for the rural population,” Pei said. “I hope that internet and e-commerce will also be available for farmers living in mountains and rural areas. We have found solutions for the water shortage, but educational and medical resources remain deficient here, which requires attention and support from the state.”

From Pei’s perspective, officials at the grassroots levels must keep the actions of the central government in mind. And so he did. Implementing the state policy of targeted poverty alleviation, he is planning to invest 80 million yuan (US$11.6 million) in developing the Baoquan Scenic Area and relocating 380 households in four villages about 60 kilometers from Peizhai to the newly constructed Baoquan Garden Community.

“It means nothing if one person, or even a village, gets rich,” Pei said. “We should help others get rich too.” At present, with a fund earmarked by the government, Peizhai Community is starting experimental cultivation of 14 varieties of fruit trees under the guidance of agricultural specialists. If successful, their economic benefits will outweigh that of vegetable growing and spread to the rest of Zhangcun Township and even the entirety of Huixian County.

Pei is aware that as the leader of the village, he needs to look forward and aim high. Echoing China’s 13th Five-Year Plan, Peizhai has laid out its own blueprint for development. In the future, in addition to planting fruit trees, it will also develop crossborder e-commerce and rural homestay tourism.

 

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