Live from China:
A Village with a Difference
Dr. Salehuddin Ahmed
THE other day, we went to visit a village just outside Beijing city. The name of the village is Hancunhe (pronounced han-tsun-ha). It is located in the South West of Beijing in the Fangshan district, one of the 16 districts of Beijing. Hancunhe is regarded as one of the model villages of China. Extraordinary development has taken place there in the last couple of decades. It took us about one and a half hours to reach the village by bus, maybe about 50 kilometers from Beijing City. It is an amazing village, hard to recognise it as a "village"¬more a modern township, though still known as Hancunhe village.
We got off the bus on a big square¬like any other small city square with a huge concrete space. A monument in the middle, on one side there is a big building consisting of offices and a fairly large exposition hall having exhibits, such as pictures on the history, maps of the village, a model showing the whole village with relief of different structures, fields, parks, schools, hospital etc. We were received by the leaders and officials of the village and taken to a Conference Room which could accommodate at least 50 people around the semi-round conference table and very modern furniture. All the people, ladies and men receiving us with big smiles were very decently dressed. The leader gave a short speech welcoming us. Then our group was taken round the exhibition hall. An elegant lady explained everything about the history and the present status of the village, of course in Chinese. We had an interpreter. What a remarkable history of an innovative and hardworking community.
Hancunhe is a medium sized village with a population of around 2,700. In the early years it was a typical poor village where people struggled. Life was difficult and the village was like any other poor village in our country. It was an agricultural community. They basically depended on mother nature and luck for their crops and lived hand to mouth. Survival was difficult. We saw pictures of the old village with muddy potholed roads, thatched broken down houses and age old tools and implements. People looked really poor in shabby clothes and sandals. The village was part of the commune in the 50's and 60's and the commune leaders decided on the people's income based on how many work points they earned for a day's work in the field. The value of a day's income was only 0.30 yuan or 4 US cents. Farmers were not permitted to change trades and perform other types of work for a living. Daily life for the farmers and their families was extremely tenuous. When I was looking at those pictures and listening to the descriptions, I was remembering our villages in Bangladesh. Though things are changing in our country, there are villages (and slums) where our poor people live in extremely difficult life conditions. Survival for many in this digital world continues to be precarious. The rich are still very unfair to the poor in this modern world.
Coming back to Hancunhe, a sea of change has taken place in this village after China adopted the Reforms and Opening Up policies in 1978.
The farmers of Hancunhe started having real opportunities to go into other trades than only agriculture. Some of the village masons, plasterers and carpenters began to go to nearby villages, work there and earn more. Many of them chose to become construction workers. Gradually by the mid 80's they began initiating some small and medium construction projects in Beijing. They organised themselves into a construction company and named it after the village as Hancunhe Construction Company and by mid 90's this company became a big Group of Companies. They are one of the biggest in China now. In ten years they reached enormous levels of achievements. Since then they have been involved in building several housing and office complexes in Beijing. In the exhibition halls we saw models of those complexes built by the company. The leaders of the group did not forget their village. Most of the construction workers continued living there and they commute to Beijing. Agriculture became a marginal occupation for the people of Hancunhe. For that matter for the economy of Beijing and outskirts agriculture is not a major profession for its people. Most of the people in Hancunhe are now construction workers, technicians, engineers and architects. The present generation is also taking on these skills. The leaders started planning and resource mobilisation for rebuilding the village into a modern one. They built beautiful houses, wide paved roads, planted trees all over in a very planned way, built schools, departmental stores, medical facilities, workshops, factories of construction materials, swimming pool, cinema and a beautiful sprawling park with a fabulous lake, trees, flowers and decorated bridges. We are marking that the Chinese are traditionally good at building small and medium decorated innovatively designed and decorated bridges across water bodies. They look so gorgeous and classy in the parks. So the village totally changed in the last 20 years. You can see the present village in some pictures. It is hard to imagine that it is a "village".
Hancunhe is now a very well planned village with rows of modern two-storied multi coloured houses. 2-3 generations live in each of those houses. It is also interesting to note that when they planned rebuilding the village they thought of certain things first, which showed a very different community centred thought process. For example they first planned and built roads, infrastructures, schools, water systems and then the houses. In many societies people would think of building houses first !
In order to diversify the economy the village authorities decided to develop tourism. So they have built excellent restaurants, small 'family hotels', travel agencies etc. Interesting that they have also acquired some electric open micro-buses in which they take tourists from Beijing (locals and foreigners) and show them around the village. We saw five such vehicles, all driven by women. For such tourists they charge a fee. The ticket per person is 40 Yuan (i.e. 400 Taka). The lady driver also explains about the village when she drives people around. There are resident families who maintain small "hotel" like facilities. People come here with their families to spend weekends away from the busy city life of Beijing. The rooms are very nice, usually double, well furnished and very clean. The family also arranges home cooked tasty traditional Chinese food of the area. For each room they charge around 60 Yuan per night. Owners say that they do good business, especially on weekends and holidays. An amazing concept. We observed and noted that the economy of this village is completely changed now. People earn more, have much better living conditions, own houses and educate their children. The present per capita income of Hancunhe is around 18,000 Yuan. China's average is 5,000 Yuan. People are well-fed and look healthy and happy. Children go to good schools. Some of them study in Beijing. Many have returned after graduation to work in the company. The company gives special facilities to the graduates of this village. Jobs are more or less guaranteed.
We had a great visit. The people were extremely cordial and caring with smiles. It was noteworthy to learn that the Head of the Village management was a Woman. Hats off to her. After seeing this village, it makes me think about conditions of the poor people in Bangladesh. We have so many very rich companies and people earning millions if not billions. I am also remembering our construction workers. They build extremely posh, multi-storied, very modern, centrally air conditioned buildings. After finishing these buildings they go back to the slums of our cities living there for generations. Can we not think of putting in the multi-million dollar budget for the buildings, a small percentage for the housing of the workers? Every now and then we see the demonstrations and destructions by the garment industry workers. Thanks to our skilled women workers garment industries are doing so well. This industry is the biggest earner of foreign exchange for Bangladesh. Can we not think about such projects for our women workers? Such questions keep bothering me.
Let me conclude by reminding Star Campus readers about something. When I see wealth accumulation by a few in this world, not only in our country, but everywhere, I remember the famous short story Lev Tolstoy wrote in 1886, "How Much Land does a Man Need", where a man in his lust for land lost everything. Those who have read it, you may read it once more and those who have not, please read it.
Let us think about people at the bottom.
(The writer is a Chief Technical Advisor, IPRCC-International Poverty Reduction Centre in China, Beijing)