Why Village Governments Struggle to Attract College Graduates

Erratic policymaking and anemic official support hamper efforts to recruit young cadres — though there are signs that things are improving.

This is the final part in a series of articles on the life of a Chinese college graduate sent to work as a village official. Parts one and two can be found here.

In June 2014, filled with the sense of having gained a lot and armed with the courage to set out again, I returned from Zhejiang province in the east to Nianzhang Village in northern China’s Shanxi province. At the time, I didn’t realize how close I was to misfortune. The following month, I was stricken with illness. I experienced periods of sudden-onset deafness, severe migraines, fevers, and violent bouts of vomiting.

Diagnoses failed to identify the disease afflicting me, and I was transferred from one hospital to another. Eventually, doctors confirmed that I was suffering from a rare disease with an incidence rate of just three in a million. Put simply, a clot was preventing blood from properly draining from my brain, raising the pressure inside my cranium to intolerable levels.

I lay in a hospital bed, my mind in a fog, barely able to move my limbs, trying to understand the damage being done to my brain. A crushing, overwhelming terror swept over me. Next came grief, despair, and helplessness. Thanks to treatment by a renowned physician and a fair amount of luck, three months later I managed to leave the hospital. I then spent the next year undergoing rehabilitation for brain damage.

Only after I had recovered in June 2015 was I able to return to the countryside. This time, I was fortunate enough to participate in the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation’s “Beautiful Countryside” project in southwestern China’s Sichuan province, which aimed to establish infrastructure linking villages to external resources in order to drive rural growth.

Just like before, I set up camp in the village and began to develop industries to help alleviate poverty. Thanks to my extensive experience as a village official, the strong support of the organization, and earnest cooperation among team members, the Ya’an Post-Disaster Reconstruction Project that we had been working on was finally given new life. During this period, there was a fair amount of interest and a number of reports on the project by state broadcaster CCTV and other media outlets, local governments, and research institutions.

Almost two years have passed since I left my post as a village cadre, and I have had ample time to reflect on my experiences. Looking back, there are several reasons why the work of college graduate village officials is often difficult or unrewarding.

The first is the erratic, intermittent introduction of policies governing the work of college graduate village officials, which means that local administrators are never sure what work we should be doing. Second, too many departments interpret vague policies in their own ways, leading to inefficiency. Third, there is often a demoralizing difference between the way prospective graduate officials view their future roles and the reality of on-the-ground governance. Fourth, village officials often lack support from individuals, families, and organizations in encouraging enterprise in villages under their direction. And finally, many graduate officials lack the physical and mental endurance necessary to work in far-flung, arduous environments where much of their work goes unnoticed or unappreciated by locals and colleagues alike.

These problems, in turn, have led to a host of other issues in urgent need of resolution. As government head honchos from the county level downward do not understand or emphasize strategic programs for college graduate officials, young cadres are sometimes “loaned out” to or retained by certain departments for undisclosed periods of time. In addition, differing entrance requirements for village officials among provinces increase the difficulty and complexity of redirecting personnel.

In addition, there is a pronounced disconnect between the character and skills possessed by village officials and the actual, objective requirements of the job. Issues such as the substandard physical, mental, or emotional health of village officials are becoming increasingly conspicuous, alienating newcomers from a field in dire need of innovation and creativity. Village officials are marginalized and left with many responsibilities but lack any real power or ability.

Finally, some aspects of the college graduate village official system are difficult to reconcile with the Four Democracies system of autonomy that aims to provide rural Chinese with a democratic say in local elections, policies, administration, and supervision, because villagers who go to university are rarely representative of rural society’s most disempowered people.

Government organizations, industrial groups, media networks, and higher education institutions are all keeping a close eye on college grad village official policies and have developed strategies to tackle problems that crop up. The state encourages young cadres to accept demotions where necessary for the cause, wait patiently for opportunities to progress, work as thoroughly and effectively as possible, and move to new postings when necessary.

In addition, seven provinces, autonomous regions, and municipalities have moved the “college-grad village official” and “transfer student” programs onto a single track, which will help to institutionalize graduate officials’ responsibilities and empower them to effect change. Not only that, many places have also paired up college-grad village officials with “First Secretaries,” allowing them to work under more established and respected colleagues. Other policies have also opened up multiple avenues for reassigning or redistributing village officials.

Furthermore, village officials themselves have come together to strengthen their profession. The National College Graduate Village Official Forum is a great example of these efforts. Media outlets such as the “College Grad Village Official Weekly” and “Home of College Grad Village Officials” have maintained a steady stream of reports on village officials. Research institutes and university faculties, meanwhile, have conducted focused research on village officials in the hope of maximizing their potential role in local governance.

Official statistics published by the “College Grad Village Official Weekly” in March 2017 show that reform measures have already had a significant impact. Starting in 2008, college graduate village official policies have been implemented throughout the country. Incomplete statistics show that by 2012, the number of village officials in the country reached around 290,000. At the end of 2016, a little more than 100,000 new college grad village officials were employed nationwide, 35,000 fewer than in the previous year. These statistics bear witness to the experiences of the nearly 500,000 college grad village officials active in villages around the country.

Now, when I think back to my time as a young village cadre, I also recall the recent words of Qin Yuefei, an official representative of college graduate officials, during a 2017 TV show celebrating those who most moved the hearts of the Chinese people in the previous year. “Between the great hall and the humble field, you chose the latter,” Qin said of officials like me. “You walk through the mud, a self-effacing example to others, as you cut a path through brambles and poverty. The sweat dripping off your back is youth; the seeds you plant are ideals. You keep watch over the lands you have so carefully cultivated and wait quietly for the day when you will reap the fruits of your labor.”

The revolution required to construct a “new socialist countryside” is not yet complete. However, although the village official’s path is strewn with obstacles, village governors can take heart from the fact that more and more exceptional youths, principled individuals, and university graduates are standing up to become part of China’s rural transformation.

Translator: Brian Bies; editors: Wu Haiyun and Matthew Walsh.

(Header image: A graduate village official paints a mural on a wall in Yangxin County, Shandong province, Feb. 27, 2017. Zhang Jingang/IC)

Originally published at www.sixthtone.com.



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