SONG PENG VILLAGE, China: Liu Hao, who graduated in June with a degree in manufacturing from a Beijing technical school, found a job he loves - in a village of 288 people surrounded by peach orchards.
"Even the villagers think it's surprising," he said. "They say, what's a college graduate doing coming here?"
Forty years after Mao Zedong forced millions of young people to leave their families and schools for a new life in the countryside, China is seeing another migration for very different reasons.
Mao believed that living among the peasants would transform the students into ideologically pure, proletarian laborers. Now the government is encouraging college graduates like Liu, 22, to help transform the countryside by taking their newly minted skills to rural areas where development has lagged behind the affluent cities and coastline.
"For Mao, it was really a political thing: He wanted to create a generation of revolutionaries," said Michel Bonnin, director of studies at the Center for the Study of Modern and Contemporary China in Paris. Now, as the world's fourth-largest economy feels the drag of a global recession and rising unemployment, students need jobs, and "there is a real need in these regions for people with some good education. This is more rational."
Many of China's current senior leaders spent long periods in the country or in remote provinces during Mao's Cultural Revolution. President Hu Jintao was sent to help build a dam on the Yellow River, carrying baskets of gravel for a year and earning 54 yuan a month, $7.88 at the current exchange rate.
Mao's program for high school students - "Shang Shan Xia Xiang," or "climb the mountains and go down to the villages" - did little for the communal farms that absorbed almost 17 million teens between 1968 and 1980. Bonnin, the author of a book on the movement, says the young people had few practical skills.
"I did not help the farmers," said Li Ping, 54, who earned 2 cents a day growing lettuce, string beans and pumpkins in a Sichuan village from 1972 to 1974. "They taught me what to do, because I had to know how to plow a field, how to plant seedlings, how to harvest. I knew nothing before I went."
Li, now the Beijing representative of the Rural Development Institute, a nonprofit based in Seattle, says today's college graduates perform a service by connecting villages to the markets and networks driving China's economy.
Liu Hao has signed on for three years as a cun guan, or assistant to the Communist Party secretary and village head of Song Peng Village, more than 60 kilometers, or 37 miles, northeast of Beijing. He's among some 20,000 people who began working as assistants and teachers this year in the program, which was created in 2006. The government wants to boost the total to 100,000 by 2012 and is offering incentives such as help repaying student loans.
The opportunity appeals to some young people who face a grim employment situation. China's growth has slowed for five consecutive quarters, and its 9 percent third-quarter expansion was the weakest in five years. Last month the World Bank forecast growth next year at 7.5 percent, which would be the slowest pace in almost two decades.
An estimated 6.1 million new graduates will enter the job market in 2009, joining 4 million from previous years who are still looking for work, Zhang Xiaojian, the deputy minister of human resources and social security, said Nov. 20. The unemployment rate for these young people is more than 12 percent, triple the official urban rate, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences said in a report released Monday.
Liu was one of seven students accepted for the program out of 400 from his school who applied. Those who participate are motivated by practical ambition to further their careers, says Bin Wu, a senior research fellow at the University of Nottingham in Britain who studies sustainable development in China's rural areas.
Liu spends his time reading up on government policies related to medical services, innovative planting techniques and the safe use of firewood. Then he explains the policies to the villagers. Over lunch, he talks with animation about the art of pruning fruit trees and the need to better market the peaches that are his village's main product.
"If you really want to help people, you have to understand the countryside," said Liu, who has ambitions to work in government.
Having "college grads come here is great," said Jiao Shichun, 50, a villager who wandered into Liu's bedroom-office in the village headquarters. Liu "helps us analyze how to do things," he said.
Jiao's two daughters, 27 and 25, live in Beijing. The older one owns a car and an apartment and makes 6,000 yuan a month working for a makeup company.
They reflect a major obstacle to the government's plan: In China's 30-year capitalist evolution, the flow of population has always been from rural to urban, with some 200 million farmers-turned-laborers moving to manufacturing boomtowns such as Dongguan in southern China before the economic slowdown began sending many back home.
While the countryside has benefited from China's years of double-digit growth, per-capita income is still a third of incomes in the cities. Closing that gap requires educated people to stay and work in the rural areas for a long time.
"The problem is the value system," said Wu of the University of Nottingham. The popular perception is that higher education should be a ticket out of the countryside.
Yu Cuihong, 24, has a degree in computer and network engineering. Her mother and father, who are farmers, weren't entirely accepting at first of her decision to work as an assistant in a community near Liu's village.
"So many years of schooling, it was like it was all a waste," she said, describing their attitude.
In her spare time, she's preparing for graduate school and, even though her parents are now more supportive, she says she doesn't plan to return to the countryside if she earns another degree.
"It's not likely," she said. "I'm studying to get a better job."