A much publicised rural revitalisation project led by the charismatic scholar Yu Jianrong, known for starting social media campaigns helping abducted children go home and exposing military officials' luxury cars, has stalled due to opposition from local officials, says a close adviser.
The internet celebrity and rural development scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and his team had left Naju village in the remote southwestern province of Guizhou, his collaborator Wang Peng told the South China Morning Post, speaking on the phone from Beijing.
“It’s really a pity. There was no land requisition, there was no commercial interest, we were just there to help,” the Beijing-based lawyer said.
Yu, Wang and about 20 volunteers travelled to Naju in China’s poorest province last month to revive the dying village. Of the 686 villagers of the Bouyei ethnic minority, only several dozen elderly were left. Almost all the villagers had moved to factory towns elsewhere seeking better pay and living standards.
China loses 80 to 100 villages to urban migration every day, according to a study carried out last year by Yu’s department. The number of villages decreased from 368,000 in 2000 to 269,000 last year.
Yu, 51, announced last month that he started working as “assistant village head”. He brought along architects, social scientists and artists to advise the villagers on how to make life in their village appeal to younger people and how to attract tourists without overly commercialising their distinct identity.
Yet, while newspapers around the country reported that villagers were enthusiastic about having the scholar give publicity to their plight, “superior organs have not approved the appointment”, Wang said. “It’s about economic interests. What else can I say?”
Many thought Yu was seeking shelter in the remote village from a crackdown on influential commentators on Chinese social media. With 17 million followers on his Sina Weibo account, he has five million more followers than Charles Xue, a prominent microblogger detained on charges of soliciting prostitution in August.
In 2011, Yu launched a social media campaign asking followers of his blog and microblog to post pictures of child beggars to help abducted children find their parents. Earlier this year he launched a similar campaign calling on internet users to share photos of luxury vehicles with military number plates.
Yu could not be reached for comment. “These backward thinking cadres are the biggest obstacle to rural development,” he told a reporter from the Shaanxi-based Chinese Business View newspaper. “What we need is to awaken the people to self-government, not to preempt it.”