China Daily (Hong Kong)
Party chief ’s economic vision transforms livelihoods in village
HARBIN — Leng Juzhen, 48, always hoped she would become a writer. However, a choice she made six years ago derailed her literary dream and led her to a small village near her home city of Shuangyashan, Heilongjiang province.
Arriving at Xiaonanhe in December 2015 as the village’s Party chief, Leng was mesmerized by the picturesque mountains and rivers nestled near China’s northeastern border. She wandered around with a camera and contemplated how she could make use of resources to develop tourism in Xiaonanhe.
Some villagers, such as Chen Zhaojun, used to frown upon her “pretentious” manner. “I didn’t know what was so beautiful about this shabby little village,” Chen recalls. “I doubted whether she was able to be our Party chief.”
Many others shared Chen’s feelings. They believed Leng came to the village to pad her resume with experience of being a poverty alleviation official, which is why when Leng put forward the idea of setting up a tourism association, most of the 400-odd villagers ignored it.
Though it was sometimes hard to get by, people in Xiaonanhe had gotten used to living a life of poverty and had no intention, let alone confidence, to make any changes. Year after year, they had grown and harvested the village’s some 1,300 hectares of land and spent most of their time drinking with neighbors and playing mahjong.
In order to motivate more villagers to join the cause, she worked hard to persuade Dong Lianying, an outgoing villager who enjoys high prestige in the village, to chair a key department of the tourism association.
Her decision proved fruitful. Some people started to follow Leng’s idea of giving the village a face-lift. They pasted traditional paper-cuts on their windows and raised red lanterns under their roofs, lighting up the dusty village as well as Leng’s heart.
“I couldn’t change 400 people all at once, but I could start with one,” she says. “I had to prompt them to get off the couch and do something to make money.”
For several days in early 2016, Leng braced herself against the freezing cold and trudged through knee-deep snow up a nearby mountain, still holding her beloved camera.
After the photos she took of the lantern-lit village were posted and spread on social media, shutterbugs from nearby poured into the village during the Spring Festival holiday, scrambling for the best spot to snap photos. Then came TV crews from outside Heilongjiang, with some setting up shooting bases there, adding new tourist attractions.
After more villagers earned dividends from the tourism association, Leng finally won their trust as a responsible, qualified official.
Leng did not stop there. Though tourists brought the dilapidated village to life, she believed a pillar industry was needed for sustainable economic growth.
Since villagers grow chilies and are generally good at making chili sauce, Leng decided to expand the vegetable growing area and set up a chili sauce workshop in the village after the harvest season of 2016.
Despite her role as a leader, Leng dedicated herself to every step of the production, learning from scratch. As tourism-related work took up most of her time during the day, she spent nearly every night in the workshop to keep an eye on the simmering vats of sauce.
Her perseverance moved the villagers. In late 2019, they raised funds and drew on a part of the village collective’s assets to found a food company. For the first time in history, the village had its own company with a standardized workshop.
After two years of development, and her persistent efforts in expanding marketing channels, the company is running well, with annual sales of chili sauce expected to exceed 500,000 bottles this year, Leng says.
She adds that over 50,000 visitors have come to the village since 2016 and revenue from tourism has reached 5 million yuan ($776,120). It was listed as a key national-level village for developing rural tourism in 2019, one year after all households had officially beaten poverty.
People have seen concrete improvements in their lives. Villager Yang Junhua says: “I had lived in poverty for most of my life. Never had I imagined that one day I could move into a nice house built by the village, nor that eggs laid by my hens would be so popular with tourists and would sell out quickly.”
Leng finished her term in Xiaonanhe in August. Over the nearly six years of her stay, villagers’ average annual income rose from around 3,000 yuan to 14,000 yuan.
Looking back, Leng says that the most important thing for a poverty alleviation official is to win people’s trust, give them confidence and galvanize them into action.
“I used to cry alone when people looked down on me or rejected my thoughts and ideas. But I knew I should keep trying, perhaps just for a little longer, and things would eventually work out,” Leng says and smiles.
She still loves her camera and has taken thousands of photos during her days in the village, recording villagers’ smiling faces while working, family reunions during Spring Festival, and the transformation of the village.
Leng herself has also changed a lot. Sometimes, when she browses her old photos taken before she came to the village, the woman she sees with nice makeup, curly long hair and dressed in stylish outfits looks like a different person, she says. But she is quite comfortable with her new style, which comprises plain T-shirts, sports pants and short hair.
While Leng did not become a writer, and during the early setbacks in the village wondered what would become of her future, she has found her true self in Xiaonanhe, a land “full of life and vitality”, she says.