Chinese students take to the hills
By Cristian Segura

BEIJING - City-dweller Wang Weiwei and his friends are the main subject of gossip in Xianying, a small village of around 8,000 inhabitants located in Beijing Municipality.

Wang's group, with its trendy and urban style, stands out in a village community that still works everyday in rice fields with donkeys and their bare hands. They are all Beijing university graduates that have accepted an offer to work as counselors in village administrations - jobs that are part of a nationwide plan conceived by the central government to modernize public services in rural areas of the country.

Thousands of university graduates have been sent to the China's countryside as part of a plan reminiscent of similar steps taken under the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). But the Cultural Revolution was a wave of oppression against anyone considered bourgeois or a threat to the revolutionary course laid by chairman Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and this time the rural exodus has very different goals.

During the Cultural Revolution, millions of people were prosecuted and tortured as young students were moved to the countryside to learn the spirit of the communist revolution. "Going to work in the countryside and mountain areas" was compulsory for every urban student. But 33 years later, students are going voluntarily with the goal of spreading the achievements of the urban society. "They send us to the countryside because here they need brains," said Lin Na, a law graduate in charge of a new statistical survey of the economy in Yanqing, the main town of Yanqing county, which is located about 80 kilometers northwest of central Beijing.

About 10% of the 2,000 university graduates serving as counselors in the surroundings counties of Beijing work in the town of Yanqing, as part of the cun guan project, which began in 1996. Cun guan (village official) is the description in Mandarin for their task as local assistants. There will be 100,000 cun guan job offers available until 2010, according to the central government. Beijing expects to increase the number of cun guan vacancies in the poor regions of Western China and offer them to recent graduates who can't find an employment as a consequence of the global crisis. The monthly salary of a Beijing cun guan ranges from 2,000 yuan to 3,000 yuan (US$293-$440) per month.

After a three-year service period, cun guan are rewarded with a permanent civil service job. This privilege is the main reason that many graduates apply for a the post - most of the students working as rural counselors couldn't obtain the marks required to immediately get a public servant post.

Another great incentive for graduates, particularly those from peasant families, is that they are granted hukou or a permanent residence permit for the city where they have studied. This means they can go back to work there after serving the three years in the countryside. In the past, a person could live and work only in the place assigned by his residence permit. Today, people can live and work in a city without hukou (such as rural migrant workers), however they have no access to the benefits enjoyed by hukou holders such as government subsidies on housing, medical care and education for their children.

Wang said that students also become cun guan because they follow the CCP teaching "of being the first to volunteer for the people". And he adds, "Mao Zedong said that there are many things to do in the rural areas. This is still true nowadays."

After decades of silence, scholars are looking back to the Cultural Revolution. In China there is a new interest for that period of history, but this trend is mainly focused on its positive aspects. Zhang Yinde, teacher of comparative literature at the Paris III University, wrote in the book La pensee en Chine aujourd'hui (published by Gallimard) a brief review of those opinions that suggest that the Cultural Revolution "was an alternative to the hegemony of the capitalist modernity that proposed solutions to the problems provoked by today's capitalism in its international expansion".

The 45 cun guan based in Xianying represent almost the half of the total staff working under the local administration. They say that their daily duties are exhausting. They are divided in teams of two. In their assigned district they are responsible to answer any doubts the farmers may have, to assist the municipal arbitration office and to collect relevant statistics that can be useful to analyze the economical and social development of the area. They are usually responsible to teach the villagers how to use computers or to help them filling out official forms. Depending on their academic background they will assume specific missions.

Jia, one of the members of Wang's team, is an expert on disease prevention and often inspects outpatient departments, checks the distribution of vaccines or teaches first-aid procedures to nurses. Zhang is 25-years old and has a graduate degree in economics. He focuses his skills on showing the farmers the best way to maximize their benefits, "I remind them that they will earn more money if they grow a certain kind of fruits depending on the situation of prices in the market. I tell them that they will be more successful if they joint their plantations or that there is the possibility to rent part of their lands if they don't use them."

The rural experience could help this younger generation, who may become the next leaders of China, understand concerns in the most populated regions of the country. It is also an opportunity for them to have first-hand experience of the freest elections in China: the elections of village councils and commissions. The majority of mayors in the countryside are members of the CCP. Most of the cun guan are also from the party, but there are cases like the district assigned to Wang, where the mayor hasn't been a CCP member for the past 12 years.

Cristian Segura is Beijing correspondent of the Spanish daily newspaper AVUI.