When trying to do any kind of reporting in China, being ethnically foreign automatically closes a lot of doors. But then sometimes it opens doors you weren’t even looking for.
Over the New Year’s holiday, my girlfriend and I went to visit an old student in Anhui. One day we hopped on a bus to the countryside to see the nearby village of Phoenix (“Fenghuacun” in Chinese), which has a population of 6,000. On the way there another passenger started asking my friend about his foreign acquaintance (me) and offered to show us around.
When we arrived, he grabbed a friend/business associate from a nearby house who happened to be the communist party secretary of the village. In Chinese cities there’s a mayor and a party secretary at the top of the government apparatus. But since the CCP oversees the government, the party secretary is the one with the real power.
As we started walking toward the village, the secretary yelled to the driver of a nearby Buick, telling him to drive us all to the town center. He complied.
Phoenix lies in a small nook surrounded by mountains. Like most villages that size, it consists entirely of one or two story homes and is largely self-sufficient – using every open patch of land for agriculture. Nearly everyone under 40 has left in search of higher paying work in the cities. However, the local economy has done pretty well for itself. A few years ago the village decided to devote a large chunk of land to growing flowers instead of vegetables. This brought in more money and had the unexpected side-effect of bringing in thousands of tourists to see the flowers blossom in spring.
As we walked around we passed a woman washing clothes in a creek. The secretary told her to go make lunch for all of us. “Ah ok,” she replied. “I’ll prepare several dishes.” And she ran off, set on her mission.
The two men explained how the village remains somewhat of a collective with the government owning all the farmland. Villagers are paid by a manager to tend to the flowers and other crops. Many of the villagers also grow a type of tree that’s used as Chinese medicine to help blood circulation. The medicine is exported, mostly to Russia, but the financial crisis has put a damper on sales the last few years. To continue development, the village currently has ambitious plans to build an enormous Buddhist temple and two lakes – which it hopes will boost tourism further.
While we were touring, several people came outside, offering the party secretary tea, cigarettes or lunch. I was kind of surprised that they seemed more enamored with him than me.
When we went for lunch at the home of the woman we’d met earlier, baijiu (white liquor) started flowing and political discussion commenced. “The US and China are like a young couple,” the secretary told me. “They quarrel a lot but they can’t leave each other.”
He asked about the US’s local government structure and pointed out how similar the Chinese system is. He said he himself had been elected to his position with 3,500 out of 5,000 votes and serves in 3-year terms. He’s now 57 and in his eighth year as party secretary.
We tried to get deeper into comparing political systems, but neither of the men could quite grasp how the American two-party system worked. The businessman asked, “Which party controls the political education?”
It’s the kind of question you would only hear in the countryside – where the party secretary regularly holds meetings to educate villagers on how to safeguard “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” and carry out new directives from higher government organs. Even with a foreigner, much of the way the secretary spoke was in archaic ideological language that only a government official would use. And in typical fashion, he had nothing but self-congratulatory remarks to make about his village.
“The US is the most developed country in the world,” he said. “But we say our living conditions are very good – no worse than America’s.”
“Just look at the food we eat,” he said as he pointed to the lamb on the table.
My friend challenged him, pointing out that there are still many poor people in the village.“They gamble,” the businessman chimed in. “Yes, it’s their personal problem,” the secretary added. “They themselves are to blame. They’re poor because they’re lazy.”
When it came up that I’m a journalism student, the secretary had a suggestion for me. “You should start your own media company in America,” he said. “Then you can write positive stories about China.”
While I’m not sure he would win my vote, he certainly seemed to have the adoration of the villagers. The driver and the cook looked happy to help when he told them what to do. And others around the village jumped up in excitement when he rounded the corner. Of course it’s still possible that, like many officials, he dabbles in some sort of corruption. But he already commands the respect of the whole village and I imagine almost anything he needs is comp’d by insistent constituents. To engage in overt or coercive corruption would be exceedingly greedy and self-defeating on his part.
In reality the town’s improving living standards probably have less to do with his policies than with the state simply getting out of the way and allowing greater private enterprise. But I doubt many see it that way. Given the town’s relative seclusion, all politics is local. So crediting the highest government official in the village for development makes sense.
But I imagine life in Phoenix is still pretty similar to what it was in Mao’s time; and the time before that. People now have enough disposable income to buy satellite dishes, hot water heaters and any number of other personal conveniences, but life is still very collective and laid back. In a sense, Phoenix is enjoying the best of capitalism and socialism. It’s been fortunate to be able to support itself economically without resorting to real estate deals. But what percentage of China’s countryside looks like this and what percentage looks like Wukan is hard to say.
There may be some slumps in the future and eventually the party secretary will be replaced by another – perhaps from a totally different political body. But regardless of what happens on the outside, I suspect places like Phoenix will go on more-or-less the way they have for centuries: as quiet farming communities separated from the outside world by geography and a lack of any real interest.