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Why didn’t the gov’t build this village a road?

Over the past few days, I’ve mentioned the village on the cliff several times, but haven’t yet discussed one of the biggest questions I had on my mind during my time there, Why didn’t the gov’t build this village a road? Why is it being left to charities to do the gov’t’s work?

I should say that we aren’t just talking about a single road, the majority of the projects we visited were infrastructure projects. One involved repairing an irrigation system, another was to fix a broken water pump, and the third was to build a water pump. Throughout China this charity is also involved in rebuilding schools, roads, bridges and village clinics.

This ties back into an important argument made by economists who say despite the hundreds of billions of dollars the Chinese gov’t has poured into infrastructure over the last few decades, China’s infrastructure investment is still far behind the US and other developed countries. This, they argue, means that China’s investing is still producing excellent returns, and is far from the waste of resources that more pessimistic economists allege.

Perhaps this is why I was so frustrated by what I saw in the countryside. Yes, there is still clearly a need, and yes, China is still funding infrastructure with billions of dollars, but a tiny percentage of that is reaching those who live in poverty. These optimistic economists fail to ask whether or not these resources are being used to fulfill actual needs, or if they are being wasted on vanity projects (like turning bridges into tunnels).

The Chinese aid worker I talked with about this issue tried valiantly to come up with a politically safe answer to my question, “Why didn’t the gov’t build this village road?” Finally she said, “They didn’t build it because it wouldn’t help local GDP very much. They are only interested in projects that build their resume and reputation.” The ugly fact is that instead of building a road that would have allowed these 40 families access to the city and its markets, which did make a huge difference for them, the local gov’t decided instead to invest in a new old looking town that might someday attract tourists.

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The same was true of the other projects that had been ignored by local officials. In the most remote village we visited the charity had built a water pumping station. I had heard about how villagers prior to the pump had been forced to walk several kilometers and cross over a mountain to the next valley for fresh water, and how much better off they were now thanks to our efforts. So you can imagine my surprise when the village was next to a rather large stream.

“Why don’t they just use this water?” I asked, “Why were they going so far away?” The first response was, “They have always done it this way.” The second response was, “During the 60’s a mine was built upstream, it released a lot of contaminates into the water which caused many diseases.”

So even here, in one of the most isolated villages I had ever been to, reckless gov’t projects had created a need that had never existed before AND then refused to address the problem (a similar theme appeared today in People’s Daily). It should be noted that gov’t officials took us to see the pump in new cars, and then asked the charity to help pay for the needed repairs.

As you can probably tell reading this, I am more than a little frustrated by this issue. China’s gov’t has footed the bill for Olympic stadiums, high-speed railways, airports, space shuttles, and who knows how many official cars and banquets, but somehow still fails to provide the basics. While many have been impressed by China’s political system when visiting Shanghai and Beijing, one would have the exact opposite impression if they visited these villages.

Talking with Christians in rural China

A few weeks ago I had the chance to visit a very small village. The villagers there told me this story of how they converted to Christianity and I thought it was an interesting account that gave a glimpse of their relationship with God and a few of the practical challenges of being a rural Christian. The following is a fairly close retelling of what I overheard from their congregation-

Villager #1 – Before we became Christians, our village was known for quarreling with our neighbors. Outsiders said that you could hear us fighting even before you entered. Neighbors would fight from sun up to sun down. We were really terrible then (congregation nods in agreement).

Another villager later told us that she had been one of the absolute worst, and raised her hands to show her ability to fight. The other villagers found this hilarious, but it seemed pretty obvious that she was one tough old lady.

Then one of our villagers met the minister from the nearby town and became a Christian (this minister was Chinese, he had been converted by another Chinese minister in the 80’s). When the others saw how happy she was, they wanted to become Christian too. Now almost the whole village has become Christian, and we no longer fight with each other. Things are much better now. We even received an award from the local gov’t for being a harmonious village.

The Lord has blessed our village in many other ways as well. For instance, because we are located high on the cliff, and we only recently had a road built, we used to have to lower caskets down by rope for burial. From time to time, the casket would tip over and the body would come tumbling out, it was a terrible misfortune for the family. Since we became Christians though, this has not happened a single time.

The congregation in their sanctuary

Minister from the nearby town – When the villagers from this place first started coming to my church, it took them nearly 6 hours to get to the chapel. This was because there was no road to the village, and so the trip was not only difficult but dangerous. When I learned about this I contacted a Christian charity for help. The charity then worked with the local gov’t to secure the funding for the project, but to keeps costs low, the villagers had to work together.

Even though they weren’t fighting with each other as much during that time, they were still too busy farming to work on this project. One day though, this woman (a woman missing one arm comes to the front of the church), picked up a bucket and started working on the road. When the others saw that even this disabled person was willing to work, they knew they had no valid excuses (at this point, most of the people in the church were crying, including the woman). Now that the road has been built it is not only much easier for them to come to the city for church, but they can also reach emergency medical services and sell their goods in the market. This is truly a precious gift from God.

the road

Lay Leader responding to a question about literacy – In our village we have very few people who can read. Most of the young people have left (the ones who could read), and so it can be difficult for new believers to understand the Bible’s teachings.

One of our members was so determined to learn the lessons, that she had her husband read her passages from the Bible every night until she memorized most of the important texts. Even though she can’t read, the others in the church know that if there is ever a question about the scripture, she can always recall the whole verse.

Another woman’s husband decided that he could teach his wife to read while she worked. So every night he would copy a verse in large characters for her. Then when she was plowing the fields, she would attach the verse to the back of the cow and study the characters one by one. Now she is one of our church leaders.

So even though most of the members can’t read, all of the members can access the Bible in one way or another. We also spend time before each church service learning all the songs for the day.

Minister from nearby town answering a question about whether or not he’d ever had trouble from the local gov’t for being a Christian- One time in the late 80’s, shortly after I became a Christian, I saw many young people on a motorcycle and they seemed to be prostitutes. I thought this was something that the gov’t should control, and so I made several large-character posters encouraging them to take action.

A few days later the Public Security Bureau came and took me to the police station for questioning. They asked, “Did you write the signs near the gov’t buildings?”

“I did,” I said.

“Who told you to do this?” they said.

“I did it by myself,” I replied.

“Why are you against the Party?” they asked.

I was very confused though, because I had never said anything against the Party, I was just encouraging them to uphold the laws. After several more rounds of questioning, I finally realized that these officers had never even seen the posters. Someone had simply reported to them that I was putting up signs by the gov’t buildings, and that I had never done this before I was a Christian. In those days, that was enough to get you into a lot of trouble.

Once I recognized this and explained to them what the signs had actually said, they were very embarrassed that they had questioned me about them, and assured me the gov’t would look into this case.

So How is Huaxi so Rich?

This is part of a series, it starts here with my trip to Huaxi village

The whole experience raised more questions about Huaxi’s socialist success than it answered. Most of the Chinese people I have talked with know about the village, are quick to repeat that it is the richest village in China, but I’m still stuck on how exactly it became so rich.

I have a few different theories, which as usual, I’m happy to share with you.

The Government has paid for the whole thing.

Or at least that was my initial reaction. After all, how could it possibly be that simply through hard work and “advanced” agricultural techniques that a village could possibly get rich enough to build all of these villas? Also if these practices were so effective, wouldn’t every village in China be rich?

America? China?

I’m still not entirely convinced that Huaxi didn’t start out with some pretty generous loans, but why would the government continue wasting so much money on a model village that hardly any foreigners visit?

Socialism really is wonderful.

As I mentioned briefly yesterday, Huaxi’s creation myth fits so neatly within Party dogma, it’s almost hard to stomach. However, the villagers really do seem to enjoy living in a place that is far more socialist than the rest of the country. They work 7 days a week with only 2 days off per month, but in exchange for that they are entitled to a villa, a car, health care, food and many other necessities.

The villagers also own many of the factories, and at least as far as I could tell, were involved in several of the decisions that have helped the place to prosper. There also seems to be little dividing rich and poor. These aspects of the village really impressed me, and I’m sure that wasn’t by accident.

Socialism only works on a small scale.

So ultimately the lesson I think I can take away from the model village is that socialism really can work, but for it to work there are a lot of requirements.

The most important aspect is controlling the population, becoming a resident of Huaxi is extremely difficult. If the town was open to migration, than I highly doubt that the residents would be able to maintain their standard of living. Also if a person decides to leave Huaxi, they also leave behind all of their wealth. So because most of the people who live in Huaxi are decedents from other residents, their money does not leave the village like it does in so many other parts of China.

Additionally, Huaxi has no problem employing migrant workers from the surrounding areas, these people though are not entitled to all of the benefits, and this helps keep factory costs low enough to spread the profits around between the villagers.

Finally, tourism has become a major asset of Huaxi, with more than 2 million visitors each year. This helps bring in millions of rmb if not billions. If it weren’t a model village, it would be very difficult to maintain this level of interest, nor would factories be so keen to invest.

Talking with my co-worker today she admitted that really China can only have one Huaxi, because it gains so many advantages from calling itself the #1 Village in China. If it was simply the socialism, all of the surrounding villages would be rich, instead there is this:

The buildings pictured here are a few hundred meters outside of Huaxi

I hope some day all Chinese people can enjoy this lifestyle, but until that becomes a reality, Huaxi village seems more like a cruel joke than a beacon of hope.

Tomorrow we’ll be looking at another surprising discovery I made in Huaxi.

The First Village of China – A Trip to Huaxi

Every once in a while I start to wonder if I will run out of material for this blog…then I have a ridiculous weekend like this one and realize that there is still so so so much more to talk about. Even though many of you have read more than 100 posts here, we are still just a few inches beneath the surface, and luckily for us, that is where a lot of the fun begins.

This weekend was May Day holiday here in China, essentially the communist version of Labor Day in the US, and my co-worker invited my wife and I to visit her husband’s hometown, Huaxi Cun. “Where is it?” I asked. “Oh, it’s very famous,” her husband said “It’s the first village of China. Many tourists like to visit there.”

As you know from reading my other posts, I like getting out of the city, and I rarely say no to free trips. So we joined them for the two-hour car ride to Huaxi Cun.

On the way we passed hundreds of other little villages along the freeway. Farmers were growing rice and assorted vegetables in the fields that surrounded their old, communist-era cement homes. Almost exactly how you would picture China.

As we got closer we started to see more and more billboards touting Huaxi Cun’s greatness, reading “华西村,中国第一村”, which translates into exactly what her husband said, “Huaxi village, the first village in China.” Only these signs had pictures with people like Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao, and piles of other communist leaders that they were happy to name for us.

Through the pollution a giant building topped with a massive golden orb became visible, and her husband started to beam with pride. “That’s my village,” he said, he was so excited he could hardly speak English, “That building will be the 9th tallest in the world when it is finished.”

My wife and I were too dumbfounded to speak, and luckily my co-worker said what we were thinking, “I don’t think it’s good for them to build such a tall building, it wastes a lot of money.”

“It’s for tourism,” he said, “There is even room for the two helicopters on the top.” He pointed to the billboard that pictured their two helicopters.

We nodded as if a little village in China had a need for such an ambitious project. It was at this time I asked what it was his brother did in Huaxi Cun. My co-worker hesitated for a moment before saying, “He’s a village leader.”

“Oh, very good,” I said, which became my go-to phrase for a weekend where I didn’t know what to say most of the time. I said the same thing when her husband explained that the former king of Cambodia, Norodom Sihanouk, used to enjoy visiting here (to be honest, I had no idea who he was).

The main street of the village was lined with American-sized single-family homes, which the Chinese refer to as “Villas”. “Is this where your brother lives?” I asked trying to find out if these were just another example of government excess. To my surprise he explained that in Huaxi Cun, all of the farmers live in villas.

I took this picture, but it doesn't even look real to me

We arrived at our hotel, The Golden Tower, which was modeled after the Big Goose Pagoda in Xi’an and were starting to see how wonderful everything here really was. My friend’s brother met us in the hotel lobby where he had already checked us in (note: if you are friends with a gov’t official nobody needs to see your passport). From the top of the hotel we could see out over the village of mansions and started to wonder if they might be in need of a couple of foreign teachers.

The village leader explained that the farmers had become rich by working in factories, and now they are each entitled to a villa, a car, free health care, a generous pension, and good education for their children…It all sounded so wonderful.

The story continues tomorrow as we peek behind the facade, and things begin to get a little surreal.