Death of a local hero
The drowning of a young village official has highlighted the dangers facing young graduates who volunteer to work in isolated communities in some of China’s remotest regions. Li Yang reports from the Aba Tibetan and Qiang autonomous prefecture, Sichuan province.
“If someone had to die that day, I would rather it had been me, not him,” Kyikyi said, with tears in his eyes. He was speaking about his late assistant, Lodro Rinchen, who drowned in a mountain flood on June 30, aged just 28. Residents of Ger Dengma village in the Aba Tibetan andQiang autonomous prefecture, Sichuan province, said the 52-year-old village head always repeats that phrase when he thinks of Rinchen.
The accident happened when the officials were desperately hunting for cellphone network coverage so they could call the local authorities and request help for the village, which had been devastated by flash floods after five days of torrential rain.
No signal was available in the deep valley, so Kyikyi, Rinchen and two members of the villagecommittee headed to a nearbymountain in the hope of finding coverage.
Ger Dengma, home to 1,000 Tibetan herdsmen in the east of the Tibet-Qinghai Plateau, is 90 kilometers from Aba county, the local government seat. It’s one of China’s poorest mountainous regions, and the locals, mainly ethnic Tibetans, live on less than $1 a day. Many have serious endemic bone and skin conditions.
On June 29, when the flood hit, most of the young people were herding yaks in the remote summer pastures, so only about 200 elderly or sick people remained in the village.
Kyikyi, Rinchen and Dowa, the former Party chief of the village, mobilized the residents and organized an exodus to a place of safety halfway up a nearby mountain. The water rose so quickly that few people had time to collect any belongings. Two hours before sunset, the villagers watched as the deluge crushed their flimsy wood, stone and mud homes, and submerged sturdier brick and mortar buildings. Most of the village disappeared under a 4-meter-deep temporary lake.
Night on the mountain
The villagers spent an uncomfortable night shivering in the open air, and at first light the four officials decided that their only hope was to contact the county government and call for emergency assistance, according toKonchok, a 50-year-old villagerwhois lame in one leg.
Initially, the four men headed for a nearby mountain where cellphone coverage was usually available. They quickly discovered that the network was down, so they trudged for three hours along the mudclogged road toward a mountain farther down the valley. At about 3 pm, they reached a river, only to find that the bridge had been washed away, so they chopped down a young tree that was growing on the riverbank and allowed it to fall across the swollen watercourse.
“He (Rinchen) said he was the lightest of the four of us, so he insisted on crossing the new‘bridge’ first,” Kyikyi said. “Just as he got to the middle of the river, he was hit by a sudden surge that threwhim into the water. I saw him struggle, but he quickly disappeared in the torrent.”
Kyikyi jumped into the water without hesitation, but was dragged under by the raging current. If his clothes hadn’t snagged on the branches of an overhanging tree, he would have been washed away too, he said.
After conducting a fruitless search, Kyikyi and his companions began trudging through the heavy rain again. At 8 pm, after walking for several hours, they managed to find a phone signal and contact the county government, alerting officials to the plight of the village and Rinchen’s disappearance.
The government immediately sent a convoy of light trucks to the isolated village and organized a search party of 200 officials and villagers to look for Rinchen.
At 3 pm the following day, the young man’s body was found 10 km downstream from the makeshift bridge, covered with scratches and with the hands tightly clenched into fists.
After Rinchen’s family had paid their respects to the body, the government organized a Tibetan water burial at the spot where the body was found.
The villagers described Rinchen as an introverted young man who, despite being the only boy from a poor family in Zoige, a county near Ger Dengma, had graduated from Aba Normal College. He arrived in the village in 2010 on a central government program set up two years earlier to encourage talented graduates to work in the countryside and lower rural unemployment levels by developing small communities.
“It’s natural for a soldier to die on the battlefield. My grandson just died on his own battlefield,” said Karkho, Rinchen’s grandfather. The 75-year-old retired soldier spoke of his grandson with pride. “He died a great death because he died for others, not for himself,” he said.
Crying and constantly working a string of Buddhist prayer beads, Rinchen’s mother, Nagapan, said her son was a self-effacing man. “He seldom spoke about his work. He was such an honest and thoughtful boy. He told us the governments in the Tibetan areas needed well-educated people like him, people fluent in both Chinese and Tibetan. He said helping poor people made him happy,” she said.
Pressure of work mean that Rinchen had only spent three days in his home village since 2010, when he paid a visit during the Spring Festival holiday last year. Even when his father, Gyakho, a shy, taciturn 54-yearold who has advanced liver and thyroid diseases, was thought to be at death’s door in the hospital in neighboring Dujiangyan city, Rinchen didn’t visit. Instead, he phoned to apologize for not being able to visit because, “there was too much work to do”, said Gyakho, who looks far older than his age. “I thought he was even busier than the county head.”
Gyanltsan, head of the local government department that oversees the work of civil servants, said: “Since the funeral, Rinchen’s family hasn’t asked us to do anything special. In fact, they even apologized for the ‘trouble’ they had caused the government after it mobilized somany people to conduct a 24-hour search for their son’s body.”
He said there are about 3,000 civil servants in the county, which is home to more than 70,000 people from the Tibetan, Qiang, Hui and Han ethnic groups. In the last four years, nearly 15 percent of local officials have used personal connections to secure transfers to other areas with better conditions and higher standards of living. The outflow has been particularly noticeable at the grassroots level, and although the county has engaged about 183 graduate officials since 2008, more than 80 have already left their posts, according to Gyanltsan.
Rinchen had volunteered to work in the remotest and least-developed village in the area for five years, far longer than any of the 100 graduate officials currently employed. “He said he was young, and his knowledge and education could do a lot for this rundown village,” Gyanltsan said.
Local government funding remains the main source of finance for grassroots towns and villages in China’s remotest areas, and since his arrival, Rinchen had written reports, and produced petitions and applications to secure money to improve the village infrastructure. In the four years he lived in Ger Dengma, Rinchen’s efforts secured more funding than the village had received in the course of its entire history.
“He knew every central government policy for improving people’s livelihoods by heart, and he paid close attention to the implementation of the policies by the county authorities,” Dowa said.
The village is only accessible by a dirt road, which is often rendered impassable by landslides. A petition written by Rinchen persuaded the county government to provide a special fund to open a 90-km dirt road in 2012, and all the villagers, including Rinchen, worked on its construction. It now takes four hours to travel between the village and the county seat, a journey that used to take about four days by yak along a rambling track.
Running water has only been available since 2012, and the village saw its first solar panels in 2013. With Rinchen’s encouragement, most of the residents added shower rooms and flush toilets to their homes.
Rinchen was also determined that the village would have cellphone coverage, and was workingontheprojectatthetimeofhisdeath.
“Ifwe’dhad the signal, Rinchen would not have lost his life,” Dowa said. “He maintained good communications and relations with the higher authorities, but was also friendly with all the villagers.”
‘Always ready to help’
When Rinchen arrived in Ger Dengma, his monthly salary was just 800 yuan ($135). By the time he died, he was earning 1,900 yuan a month, but he cared little aboutmoney and spent most of his earnings on clothing and medicines for the children and disabled villagers.
When his parents cleaned out his roomcum-office, all they found was a basketball and a set of clean clothes that had been washed and pressed by Nagapan when she last visited Rinchen, about a month before his death.
Serthar, a blind, childless widower who used to work as a herder, said the young official always made time for the villagers. “Rinchen was always ready to help needy people, even with quite trivial things. His sympathy and education meant he was the most capable person in the village. We regard them (the graduates officials) as our own sons, daughters and grandchildren,” he said, adding that he was lonely after Rinchen died because the young official often visited him to bring food and to chat.
“I think his soul has become one with the mountains and rivers around us. I hope we will meet him in the future life,” Serthar said.
TadrinTso, a 29-year-old official inMongu village in Aba who worked with Rinchen, said life is equally tough for the graduates and the villagers. “I was almost buried in a landslide in August last year on my way back to the village. Our salaries are much lower than those of civil servants, even though our work is no easier than theirs. Next year, I will take an entrance exam for postgraduate studies and look for a better future,” the Sichuan Normal University graduate said, adding that she has only seen her boyfriend twice this year, even though he only lives 300 km away.
Wolves, wild dogs, snow and floods are among the potential dangers the young officials face, because they frequently shuttle between the remote villages and the county seat, often stopping at places where they can make a call to the outside world.
Official data show that the program has brought 400,000 college graduates since 2008, but nearly 70 percent quit after just two or three years.
Kalzang, a 27-year-old graduate official whowasfriendly with Rinchen, said he’s preparing to take an entrance exam for teacher training college. “Rinchen was really exceptional because he hadn’t considered leaving the village. Most people only take the job as a stopgap while they look for a better job.”
Tibetan children walk along a road lined with debris left after flash floods hit Ger Dengma village, Aba, in June. The older boy is wearing a
pair of black jeans given to him by Lodro Rinchen.
Above: Rinchen (right) talks with Kyikyi about a poster for the village committee in 2013.
Serthar (left) sits with a fellow villager in front of his house.
He (Rinchen) said he was the lightest of the four of us, so he insisted on crossing the new ‘ bridge’ first... He was hit by a sudden surge that threw him into the water.”
Kyikyi, head of Ger Dengma village in Aba