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Education through service gives a sense of reality

By Peng Yining | China Daily | Updated: 2013-03-05 07:54

 Education through service gives a sense of reality

This 1983 photo shows Xi Jinping talking to local residents at a street meeting during his time as Party chief in Zhengding county, Hebei province. Xinhua


Firsthand experience of life among the people is an invaluable asset for the country's new top leaders, reports Peng Yining in Beijing.

When Xi Jinping, China's top political leader, worked as a village head in the northwestern province of Shaanxi in the 1970s, his unstuffy attitude boosted his popularity. Xi was happy to stand in icy water to help farmers reinforce river banks; he organized a small cooperative for blacksmiths and helped build the first methane tank in the province, according to reports from Xinhua News Agency.

Having spent decades working in second- and third-tier cities, and even in some of the country's most remote villages, all seven members of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the 18th Communist Party of China Central Committee, the country's top leadership body, have experienced life in harsh conditions.

"Our people have an ardent love of life. They want better education, more stability in employment, higher incomes, greater social security, better medical and healthcare, improved housing and a better environment. They want their children to benefit from sound growth and good jobs, and to lead a more enjoyable life," said Xi in his first public speech as general secretary on Nov 15. "To meet their desire for a happy life is our mission."

At the age of 16, Xi volunteered to live as an "educated youth" in a small village in Shaanxi, one of millions of young city dwellers who responded to Chairman Mao's call for them to live and work in agrarian areas, starting in the 1950s.

Between 1982 and 1985, he worked for the CPC's Zhengding County Committee in Hebei province. Later, he was transferred to Fujian province and worked there for 17 years, his posts ranging from vice-mayor to provincial governor. He worked in Zhejiang province for five years as secretary of the CPC provincial committee, before spending 12 months in Shanghai as secretary of the city's municipal committee. In 2007, he became a member of the top leadership body of the country.

"Xi has been among the villagers and was himself a farmer in his early career. Hence, he knows what sort of lives people lead and what they need from the government," said Ding Yuanzhu, deputy head of the Policy Advisory Department at the Chinese Academy of Governance. "The backgrounds of Xi and the other committee members give them a deeper understanding of the country and help them to improve the people's well-being."

Ding said the experience of working in different provinces and regions has enabled the leaders to tailor their measures to local conditions.

"Situations differ in Shanghai, Fujian and Zhejiang, the three places where Xi used to work. A policy that works in Fujian may not be suitable for Shanghai," he said. "Working at the national level is a much bigger challenge, but his experiences will help him to decide what is suitable for each occasion."

In 1988, Xi became Party chief of Ningde prefecture in Fujian, one of China's poorest regions at the time, and made a point of establishing and maintaining contact with local farmers. Xi traveled for days in the mountainous countryside to reach remote villages. According to Xinhua, Xi once walked along a rugged mountain road for nearly five hours to reach a township called Xiadang, where he received a warm welcome from the residents who said he was "the highest-ranking official to have visited the village".

Xi explained his policy to Xinhua: A county Party chief should visit all the villages in the county; a city Party chief, all the townships; and a provincial Party chief, all the counties and cities.

During his time in Ningde, Xi helped thousands of local farmers to renovate their thatched huts, and helped fishermen to move from their boats and live on the land.

When working in Fujian, Xi was the first provincial governor to launch a campaign to crack down on contaminated food, said Xinhua.

In 1999, Xi also advocated improvements in the IT infrastructure as a means of helping the public. According to a provincial government report, all hospitals and computerized medical records were linked and shared across the network by 2010. Moreover, 80 percent of Fujian's businesses will provide online services by 2015.

Fujian is also among the top provinces in terms of high environment and ecological quality, partly because of the adoption of policies to restore the ecological balance and protect the environment during Xi's tenure.

In 2004, when Xi was working as secretary of the CPC Zhejiang Provincial Committee, the province was a trailblazer in establishing the process whereby children undergo 15-years of compulsory education.

HIV/AIDS pioneer

Li Keqiang began farming as a 19-year-old "educated youth" in Fengyang county, Anhui province. During his time in the impoverished county, Li came to understand poverty and starvation, according to Xinhua.

As a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Youth League, Li helped to build China's first "Project Hope" primary school in Anhui's Jinzhai county. Project Hope, which has grown into one of the largest charitable institutions helping children from poor areas to access education, has received 7.85 billion yuan ($1.26 billion) in donations during the past 23 years and built 17,574 primary schools nationwide.

In 2002, as Party chief in Henan province, Li put the treatment and prevention of HIV and AIDS at the top of the government agenda in response to several outbreaks across the province. Li visited patients in the hardest-hit villages and invited Gao Yaojie, a retired doctor and AIDS activist, to his office to review the situation.

The provincial government provided direct assistance to the 38 hardest-hit villages as Li instituted a policy to provide HIV and AIDS patients with shelter, food, clothing and basic medical insurance. Juvenile patients and orphans were also provided with free education. Those who contracted the disease from tainted black market blood received free heath checks and treatment.

Michel Sidibe, executive director of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, later thanked Li for his role in the progress China has made in the prevention of AIDS.

When Li was transferred to the northeastern province of Liaoning in 2004, he was shocked to learn about the housing difficulties that afflicted the population; in one town, a lack of amenities meant that nearly 1,000 people were forced to use a single toilet. The provincial government quickly released a plan to help 1.2 million residents move into new apartments.

Housing transformation

A large-scale housing transformation project was accelerated in Shanghai after Yu Zhengsheng, another member of the new leadership body, inspected one of the city's uninhabitable residential areas and discovered that residents had to hang plastic bags from the ceilings to catch the rain water that leaked into their homes.

Yu, who was the municipality's Party chief at the time, instructed his driver to take him directly to the shabby community behind the affluent high-rise blocks without informing the district officials, according to an official quoted in a Xinhua report.

Before his election as a member of the Standing Committee, Liu Yunshan was a journalist for Xinhua, based in Inner Mongolia, where he worked from 1975 until 1982 and developed a deep interest in the local communities.

Liu's empathy with the people has stayed with him over the years, despite his transition from journalist to senior official, according to Xinhua.

He has urged journalists to write about the lives of ordinary people and to speak out for them. "Get down to the ground. Only in this way can we become people of confidence and intelligence," he said.

Guo Fenghai, professor of Marxism studies at the PLA National Defense University said, "Now people are talking about the 'China Dream'. Improved well-being is an important part of this dream." Guo was referring to a concept Xi proposed shortly after being elected as Party General Secretary. Xi explained that realizing the renewal of the Chinese nation is the country's greatest modern aspiration.

China's new leaders have experienced life at all levels, but especially on the lowest rung of the social ladder. Those experiences rooted the idea of improving public well-being in their lives and ideology. With their grassroots backgrounds, they can effect great changes from the platform of the central political apparatus.

"China has grown to become the world's second-largest economy, but our living standards still have room for improvement, such as a cleaner environment and better social security," said Guo. "People's well-being is the government's top consideration, and it always should be."

Jiang Xueqing and Wu Wencong contributed to this story

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