Bright Lights, Big Village
By staff reporter LI WUZHOU
An experiment in job creation – the College Grad Village Official program – shows that placements who take these rural posts for the right reasons are realizing ambitions that outpace their city-bound colleagues.
In an effort to maintain social balance, the Chinese government several years ago adopted a policy of encouraging college graduates to take grassroots official positions in rural areas. The goal was to ease the unemployment pressures of the growing urban centers. The “college grad village official,” a commonly used term for these social implants, has become a breed in China in recent years; their number now exceeds 130,000. Now the question has risen about how to best further the personal development of this interesting new class of civil employee. Finding grads with the right motivation may be the key.
Choice, with Consequences
In the spring of 2009, a Chinese media report revealed that a college grad village official named Yang Shengmin in Sanjiang County, Liuzhou City of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region had experienced an emotional breakdown after failing to pass the national civil servant recruitment examination at the end of her four-year village appointment.
Thanks to news coverage of her story, Yang has received free medical care since 2009. However, the tale illustrates the need to discern future career paths for the young village officials. During the 1990s, a few provincial governments began to send college grads into rural areas in a bid to introduce educated and talented youth to development efforts in the countryside, as well as to cultivate and train competent local officials from the grassroots level. Starting in 2006, governments at various levels undertook larger scale drives to recruit recent college grads.
Now it was part of a job-creation drive, most grads opted to be village officials solely for the benefits that they might receive, rather than to actually lay down roots in the rural communities and focus on grassroots work. Preferential treatment comes in the form of public servant recruitments and postgraduate entrance examinations pledged by the government to entice them to devote themselves to building up these rural areas. A 2009 poll on post-contract career options for college grad village officials was launched by the social networking website serving those young officials – College Grad Village Official Website. It reported that nearly half of the 1,603 officials surveyed chose to take part in the national civil servant recruitment examinations.
Another survey targeting that population showed that 62.55 percent are eager to pursue careers in the government after completing their tenure as village officials. Hao Xiaolei, a village official in Zuoquan County, Shanxi Province, told China Today that like most other placements of this nature in the county, he chose to work there simply for the additional 5 points he would be entitled to on the public servant recruitment exams. The village post also means stability for him because he’s entitled to the position as long as he receives a competent evaluation in his annual performance assessment. Hao is upbeat: “I’m confident that the government has given consideration to our future careers.”
The facts corroborate his expectations. In Beijing, among the 2,000-plus college grad village officials whose contracts expired in 2009, 20 percent have already been employed as civil servants in government departments; another 20 percent have been recruited into other public institutions; 7 percent chose to renew their contracts with the villages; only a minimal number opted to launch their own businesses in rural areas.
Propelling Rural Prosperity
College grad village official Wang Lina decided to settle down and start her own business in Ertiao Village, Mafang Town, Pinggu District of Beijing after her contract expired. Three years ago, she proposed to establish strawberry orchards in the village, a project she worked on passionately. She visited some successful strawberry cultivation bases in the three neighboring provinces over a two-month period to learn about cultivation of the berry. On the weekends she would make a 4-hour bus journey to the Beijing Forestry and Fruit Research Institute in the Fragrant Hills. She rose at 2 o’clock in the morning to travel the long distance to the wholesale markets to promote her products. When supplies fall short of demand in the winter farming off-season Wang Lina took the opportunity to sell the strawberries at a better price. By utilizing what she learned, Wang Lina was able to help the local strawberry farmers increase their earnings several fold. Villagers dubbed her the “strawberry angel.”
Jie Tongbin, in her early 30s, worked in Xigang Township, Qixian County, Hebi City, Henan Province for seven years after graduation from university. With the husbandry knowledge Jie acquired in college, he was able to help villagers with their livestock breeding programs, which not only led the farmers of two villages to prosperity, but also managed to bring his own assets to nearly RMB 100 million. Gui Yuqiang, member of the Standing Committee and director of the Organization Department of the CPC Hebi Municipal Committee, says his findings are based on incomplete statistics, but they reveal that 1,300-odd college grad village officials serving in 879 administrative villages have launched over 700 such projects. More than 8,000 jobs have been created for the local people, and 129 village officials have managed to amass personal wealth exceeding RMB 1 million.
The latest statistics from Suqian City, Jiangsu Province show that 225 college grad village officials have initiated their own businesses and set up 134 enterprises, providing 2,600 jobs for the locals. In addition, they helped over 1,100 households create their own business programs and assisted more than 50,000 people in developing their finances.
Similar examples can be seen throughout the country. Even though the grads did not originally intend to take root in rural areas, they often accomplish great things there.
Encouraging Grads to Take Root in Rural Areas
Eight hundred million of China’s 1.3 billion people still live in the countryside. However, there is a challenge not only to draw more college graduates to work in those areas, but also to curb the flow of young rural people who continue to swarm out into urban areas in search of better economic opportunities.
The strong demand for talented well-educated young people in rural areas along with the grim outlook for employment in urban centers has, on the surface, created a perfect fit. In China, college graduates account for only 5 percent of the total population, far less than in developed countries, which is 30 percent. However, the majority of them are desperately seeking to enter government positions in larger cities, and few give a second thought to serving in the laggard countryside where they are needed most.
Encouraging college grads to take posts in rural areas seems to be an effective way to tackle this issue. However, the effort is constant because many grads just use the program as a springboard to other opportunities, resulting in escalating competition for rural posts by people with little intention of staying. Take Beijing as an example. There were over 20,000 applicants for its 1,600 rural posts in 2009, bringing the recruitment ratio to a new high of 12:1, compared with 6:1 during 2006-2008.
Some experts have suggested that policy should place less emphasis on preferential treatment for college grad village officials in public servant recruitment examinations, so as to attract those whose motivation is to take root in the countryside and realize their ambitions there. Properly motivated college grads can better help the farmers shake off poverty. As for those that have made remarkable accomplishments, local governments should further cultivate these young talents by clearing a career path for them or promoting them into more important village positions, or even to posts at the township or county level. When these young graduates become the backbone of rural China these policies will have earned their historical significance.
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