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College Sophomore Takes Helm Of Chinese Village
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College Sophomore Takes Helm Of Chinese Village

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College Sophomore Takes Helm Of Chinese Village

College Sophomore Takes Helm Of Chinese Village
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Bai Yitong, 19, was elected chief of Gaojie village in Shaanxi province. i

Earlier this year, Bai Yitong, 19, was elected chief of Gaojie village in China's northwest Shaanxi province. She stands outside historic homes — traditional cavelike dwellings built into the side of the side of hills and mountains — which she wants to renovate for tourism purposes. Anthony Kuhn/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Anthony Kuhn/NPR
Bai Yitong, 19, was elected chief of Gaojie village in Shaanxi province.

Earlier this year, Bai Yitong, 19, was elected chief of Gaojie village in China's northwest Shaanxi province. She stands outside historic homes — traditional cavelike dwellings built into the side of the side of hills and mountains — which she wants to renovate for tourism purposes.

Anthony Kuhn/NPR
A farmer with his cow, cart and load of firewood in the hills above Gaojie village. i

A farmer with his cow, cart and load of firewood in the hills above Gaojie village. Mo Yang for NPR hide caption

toggle caption Mo Yang for NPR
A farmer with his cow, cart and load of firewood in the hills above Gaojie village.

A farmer with his cow, cart and load of firewood in the hills above Gaojie village.

Mo Yang for NPR
Gaojie village is nestled in a valley in the loess hills and mountains of Shaanxi. i

Gaojie village has more than 450 residents and is nestled in a valley in the loess hills and mountains of Shaanxi. Mo Yang for NPR hide caption

toggle caption Mo Yang for NPR
Gaojie village is nestled in a valley in the loess hills and mountains of Shaanxi.

Gaojie village has more than 450 residents and is nestled in a valley in the loess hills and mountains of Shaanxi.

Mo Yang for NPR
Bai Yitong plays with a fellow villager outside her office i

Bai Yitong plays with a fellow villager outside her office. Many residents know her by her childhood nickname, Lele, or Happy. Mo Yang for NPR hide caption

toggle caption Mo Yang for NPR
Bai Yitong plays with a fellow villager outside her office

Bai Yitong plays with a fellow villager outside her office. Many residents know her by her childhood nickname, Lele, or Happy.

Mo Yang for NPR

In China, the case of a college sophomore who was elected village chief has focused attention on a new policy to encourage educated youths to serve in rural areas.

The policy's aim is to improve local governance and develop the rural economy, while easing high unemployment among college graduates.

Several times during the past century, young Chinese have been at the center of social movements aimed at reforming China's rural society. They often found it more resistant to change than they thought.

'Honoring My Ancestors'

On a recent morning, the public address system crackles to life in Gaojie village, a dusty hamlet of 1,000 mostly elderly residents in the mountains of Shaanxi province. The announcement urges villagers to come get free bags of iodized table salt. It's to prevent diseases caused by iodine deficiency, which afflicts some of China's poorest farmers.

The person behind the microphone is village chief Bai Yitong. She is wearing sweats and sneakers and looks like she stepped out of a college dorm — which she did. The 19-year-old is still finishing her college degree in her spare time. She was born in this village but moved to the city at a young age.

She said she took the job at the suggestion of her father, a well-connected local journalist and former official.

"I took this job to honor my ancestors," she explains. "At first I thought this village was too poor, and I didn't want to come. And I thought that as a mere village chief, I wouldn't be able to accomplish much. But my dad said sometimes you have to start out small. So that's what I did."

Tapping Into Family Funds

Most of the villagers here are surnamed Bai. Theirs has been the dominant clan in Gaojie village for centuries. In 1998, the government ordered villagers to plant trees on the hillsides instead of crops to prevent soil erosion. Most of the villagers now grow Chinese date trees for a living. Farmer Bai Xiu'e says that thanks to their new chief, the villagers now have a road up the mountain to their trees.

"The new road is great," she says with a toothy grin. "We can bring our dates down the mountain by truck. Before, we had to carry them on our backs in baskets. It was a long way to go and it was miserable."

To build the road, Bai Yitong spent the equivalent of $14,000 of her family's money. That's nearly three years' revenue for the village's governing committee. Despite concerns about the blurring of public and private finance, it has become a common electioneering tactic in some parts of China.

Bai promised voters she would deliver 10 projects, including the road, if elected. She also pledged to build a date-processing factory and provide every home with running water, which most residents don't have.

Li Biying runs a small inn in her courtyard. The rooms are like caves, built into the side of the loess soil hills. Filling large jars in her rooms with buckets of well water, Li says she is grateful for Bai's pledges.

"Before Bai Yitong came back, we had five elections, but no candidate could win a majority," she recalls. "And none of them could accomplish anything either. They were just running for their own personal gain. But Bai Yitong is upright, and she spends her own money to help us."

Filling Villagers' Bellies

Bai Yitong was elected on Jan. 14 by nearly all of the village's 461 voters. She defeated Bai Zhijia, 46, who is typical of many previous candidates. He is illiterate and ran without any particular platform.

"The villagers' attitude was very clear," he says. "They chose Ms. Bai because she was young and educated. The trend in future will be for younger village chiefs."

In addition to the road she funded, Bai Yitong is trying to restore centuries-old buildings as tourist attractions. They include a castlelike dwelling overlooking the nearby Wuding River and a Ming Dynasty opera stage. But she says not all the villagers get the point of restoring historic buildings.

"That's because you can't eat it," she remarks with a laugh. "As the old saying goes, to the common folk, food is as important as heaven. Farmers are still more concerned with filling their bellies."

Gaojie villagers make an average of about 50 cents a day. Bai says her goal is to raise that to nearly $2.50 a day by year's end.

Rallying Around The Young Chief

Bai says one of her most frustrating moments was when residents from a neighboring village built a house, blocking the road she was building. She tried to negotiate, but her fellow villagers lashed out in anger.

"By the time I got there, they had destroyed about half of the building," she recalls. "I tried, but couldn't stop them. The crowd was enraged and had lost all reason. The situation was out of control."

The residents from the neighboring village later tried to beat her up, she says, at the instigation of the local township party secretary. Her villagers protected her.

Some analysts point to this opposition from higher-level officials and question whether the rural power structure will accept the young village chiefs. They also doubt whether other young village chiefs can get much done without access to the economic and social networking resources of Bai Yitong's family.

As for Bai Yitong, she says she is determined to continue serving as village chief, as long as her villagers support her.

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