Death of a lo­cal hero

China Daily (Canada) - - TIBET -

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

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