How China’s war on poverty became a personal mission for the man who turned his back on the big city to return home
His parents were distraught when he left the rat race to come back to his mountain village but his work over the past decade is gradually bearing fruit
For many impoverished Chinese families, going to university means the opportunity to rise above their rural background and start building a life and career in the big city, but not for Li Jun.
After four years working at a media company in Chengdu, the capital of the southwestern province of Sichuan, he suddenly jacked it all in to return to the mountain village where he grew up.
The catalyst for his decision to return to Xiuyun village in Guangyuan prefecture was the devastating 2008 earthquake that killed around 69,000 people and caused widespread devastation.
Although no one died in his home village, images of the ruins of people’s houses prompted him to ask why he had to gone to work in the city when he could stay at home and do something for his own people.
The decision was not supported by his parents, who cried as they told him they could not understand why they worked so hard to pay for his university education when he had voluntarily returned to the mountains.
Li, now 33, had started working for the media company while he was still studying at university Chengdu. After four years with the company he had risen to become a deputy general manager with an annual salary of 180,000 yuan (US$28,500).
His parents were not the only ones who struggled to understand why he had given all this up to return to an impoverished mountain village.
Many villagers thought he was either so incompetent that he had no other options elsewhere or he was just using the experience as springboard for other jobs.
Yet 10 years on Li has proved them wrong.
Having started out as the assistant to the village chief, he was named the party boss in 2010 and is still in charge there.
The village has also been rebuilt, with the rundown houses that survived the earthquake being replaced by villas of the type favoured by many urban residents and most families now own their own car.
Initially Li’s passion for village life was not reciprocated.
“The villagers didn’t trust me in the beginning because I was too young. Nobody listened to a party chief in his twenties. They started to believe in and trust me only after I solved the problems they cared about the most,” said Li.
His most important project was building new roads to link the villagers to the outside world.
His own cousin had died after he suffered a cerebral haemorrhage and it took the ambulance more than an hour to climb up the poor quality dirt road.
To fund the project Li spent three days lobbying a property developer to secure a 200,000 yuan donation. This, plus funding from the government, was enough to build three cement roads the following year.
“They trusted me after they saw I meant what I said. I think it’s my mission as a grassroots level cadre to lift the village out of poverty and I never thought of giving up,” Li said.
Then Li found the break that the poor mountainous village had been needing. He received a call from a friend who said his son loved the free-range eggs from his village and asked him to take more to Chengdu “no matter how expensive they are”.
On his own initiative Li organised a free-range chicken collective in the village to supply environmentally friendly rural products to urban residents.
By 2014, the village had secured orders from 10 or so companies and 50 families, supplying produce worth a total of 560,000 yuan.
“We wanted purchase orders rather than donations. The buyers get something in return and the suppliers keep their dignity. By dignity I mean the impoverished families are counting on no one but themselves to get richer,” Li said.
Li said the model was sustainable and could be copied by other poor villages because it made villagers feel valued and made them more motivated to work.
“Poverty alleviation policies may come and go and but market-driven poverty alleviation measures stay,” he added.
Xiuyun has now opened a restaurant in Chengdu, which hires local residents and only serves produce from the village.
In total, Li says the restaurant and agricultural collective generate about 10 million yuan a year.
“One common problem for poverty alleviation is how to sell agricultural products. We have solved the problem by providing high-quality goods at a high price,” he added.
Poverty reduction is one of Xi Jinping’s top policy priorities, with
Li called for more young people to follow his example and go back to rural areas.
“We need cultured and passionate young people to help alleviate poverty and revive the countryside. Those who come with a rural background and feel attached can go back,” said Li.