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China turns to villages for next miracle

Li Min Kai, 23, is a manage- ment graduate grateful for his job. Instead of the corporate cubicle he grew up dreaming of in Beijing, Li works in a village of 483 people, with one daily bus to Beijing, and erratic power supply when he cooks dinner, Reshma Patil explores.

world Updated: Jan 04, 2009 02:13 IST
Reshma Patil

Li Min Kai, 23, is a management graduate grateful for his job. Instead of the corporate cubicle he grew up dreaming of in Beijing, Li works in a village of 483 people, with one daily bus to Beijing, and erratic power supply when he cooks dinner.

His job: chief assistant to the village head, and a salary almost equal to a government doctor’s pay in rural Maharashtra.

Chinese graduates have entered 2009 with a choice that most of their urban Indian counterparts — who marvel at China’s miracle economy — still don’t face.

China is turning to its villages for the next miracle while economic growth could slump to a 19-year low this year.

A leadership worried about student unrest and desperate to create jobs for the 6.1 million graduates of 2009 is urging the best crop in universities to go work with farmers, on three-year tenures with annual increments.

“I’m lonely and miss city life,” said Li in a telephone interview from Liangjia Zhuang village, where has worked since 2007. “But I knew there would be no jobs after 2008. Here, I’m gaining work experience.”

This week in Beijing, Hindustan Times attended a session where final-year students of finance, management and computer studies discussed job prospects with officials from Mafang village, where 1,006 people live a four-hour bus ride away.

“The promising future is in the villages,” Yin Fubing, a Communist Party official at the Beijing Union University, advised students. “If you work hard, you can achieve something.”

By the third-year, the assistants, selected from tests and interviews, will earn an annual 33,600 yuan (about Rs 2.35 lakh).

The salary is attractive for a market crowded with over 1.5 million graduates of 2008 still seeking work, after spending 4,000-10,000 yuan (Rs 28,000-70,000) a year on tuition. The unemployment rate for new graduates is over 12 per cent. So Mafang officials let their village assistant do the talking.

The ‘assistant’ is a management graduate called Wang Lina, 25, who grew up in Beijing. The Chinese call her Strawberry Princess, for teaching Mafang’s farmers to modernise agriculture and market plump strawberries. Wang, who studies international trade in Beijing on weekends, told HT that many of Mafang’s elders have never stepped out to the Chinese boomtowns that India admires.

“It’s a poor village,” Wang told HT. “I taught farmers to use computers, invest wisely and market off-season crops. I won their confidence step-by-step.”

Wang is a product that initially targeted 20,000 students at its launch in 2006.

But by late 2008, as the global economic crisis sank thousands of companies in China’s manufacturing zones, the leadership announced it would create tens of thousands of grassroots jobs for graduates. Officials began marketing the jobs — ironically around the 30th anniversary of China’s economic reforms.

By October 2008, according to official figures, 78,000 graduates were working in villages, including 8,100 graduates posted in outposts around Beijing.

The policy is a throwback to 40 years ago when China’s Communist leader Mao Zedong controversially sent students to labour and learn from ‘peasants.’ Today’s graduates will be teaching them, and in a hurry to return when the economy recovers.

“It’s really hard to find a job. The village posts are worth considering,” Wang Zhao, 21, a final-year computer science major and Beijinger told HT after the briefing at the University.

At the canteen, students eat at tables plastered with old advertisements with the slogan: City Better Life.