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December 28, 2010

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City officials sent to countryside

IN an effort to improve life in rural areas, handle farmers' grievances and maintain stability, city officials are being sent voluntarily to work as village heads for three years. Ensuring clean local government is a top priority.

In the prime of Zhang Chengquan's life, he used to dream of leaving Chongqing and working in the countryside where he hoped he could help poor farmers.

It didn't happen for many years but today, at age 57, with retirement three years away, the Chongqing government health official has been reassigned to work as village official on the outskirts of the city.

Zhang is a section-level employee in the health supervision bureau in Fuling District, but the district committee of the Communist Party of China decided that he should finally help farmers. He will be able to return to his city post and his pension will remain intact.

In his new post he will deal with farmers' grievances, using a special government fund to build village facilities and mediate neighborhood disputes.

Zhang was not alone in his mission as ambassador between district government officials working in high-rises and farmers toiling in the fields. From September to mid-December, the CPC Chongqing Fuling District Committee sent nearly 2,000 section and division-chief-level officials from cities and townships to villages.

Senior officials from the district committee believe city officials are in a better position to impartially settle rural disputes since they have no stake in the interests of the village. Thus, they can work as supervisors, winning trust of the villagers, at the same time preventing village heads from acting improperly.

Sending city officials to resolve rural conflicts was one of the approaches of some CPC officials to address prominent problems in rural areas such as disputes over land seizure for development and election scandals.

"Based on research, we found that problems did exist in rural areas in enforcing central government policies and ensuring farmers are treated fairly," says Zhang Ming, secretary of the CPC Chongqing Fuling District Committee.

"For example, minimum living allowances and direct subsidies for farmers are not distributed on time and are below the state standard. Some farmers don't trust the government and the Party though the central government has implemented many preferential policies for farmers," he says.

Jiang Tianlun, head of the Publicity Department of the CPC Fuling District Committee, recalls how three months ago he went to Ledao Village to promote farmer-friendly policies.

Using the village radio station, officials asked farmers to go to the village meeting room and told them they would receive a subsidy of 100 yuan (US$15) for each sheep they raised.

"The broadcast started at 5pm and four hours later a handful of sheepherders walked in and received their subsidies that night," Jiang says.

The subsidy policy went into force the next day, when experts on sheep farming came to the village to lecture on the do's and don'ts of raising sheep.

Villagers jammed the lecture room.

In the 153-household village of Ledao, the number of sheep farmers increased from 30 before July to 97 at this time, says Wang Xuejun, secretary of the Ledao Village committee.

Soon after Zhang - the official who had wanted to help farmers - arrived in the village, he tried to involve himself in the community and get closer to the villagers.

He worked with village officials to make posters detailing the use of village funds, property and resources. With a budget of 50,000 yuan directly allocated by the district CPC committee, he helped build facilities such as running-water projects.

He also went door-to-door to help with registration in the national population census and interviewed village committee election candidates to ensure local elections went smoothly and were not marred by scandals.

"With better knowledge on state and local preferential policies for farmers, city officials may well use their government connections and channel more useful support for farmers," says Zheng Fengtian, deputy dean of the School of Agricultural Economics and Rural Development, the Renmin University of China.

The economic wonder that China created in the last three decades since the country kicked off its landmark reform and opening-up policy in 1978 have made tens of millions of Chinese affluent and lifted millions of farmers out of poverty.

However, given the widening income gap between city dwellers and villagers, maintaining stability in China's vast rural land is and will continue to be a great task for China's policy makers, experts say.

Senior Chinese leaders have repeatedly stressed the necessity of maintaining stability in rural areas while improving the work style of government officials in these areas.

During the three-day Central Economic Work Conference, one of the most important economic policy making events in China, which ended on December 12, top officials called for vigorous efforts to resolve conflicts, saying law enforcement should be "fair and clean."

To ensure farmers' complaints are better handled, some local governments have started pilot programs that would give more incentives to college graduates and city officials to work with farmers and as village heads.

In Taizhou City of eastern Jiangsu Province, officials are rewarded with a "double package" if they serve as village heads for three consecutive years.

They will retain their rank and post when they return from the countryside. During their tenure in rural areas they are paid for both their city post and their post as secretary of the village committee, or the village head.

City officials in Taizhou are also more likely to be promoted after working for three years as a village committee chief.

Though stimulus packages for the countryside are important, what's more important is how the government supervises these city officials and ensures they handle farmers' complaints properly and settle their disputes, says Zheng from the Renmin University.

"Instead of village officials, farmers should play a key role in grading the performance of city officials during their tenure or upon leaving," he says.


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