First person: “A man in my position couldn’t achieve what I have”
Gender | Governance and Social Policy | Subscription-only Content | First Person
According to the Ministry of Civil Affairs, in 2004 less than one percent of Village Committees and village-level Communist Party Committees in China’s 653,000 administrative villages were headed by women.Wu Jing’ai (吴京爱), 53, is one of those rare women. A loyal Communist Party member, she has led her village to relative prosperity. Speaking in her native, Shandong dialect, she told Tina Qian (钱霄峰) about her life and career in grassroots politics and development.
I was born in a small village in northeast Shandong’s Pingyi County (平邑县) in 1953. When I was only five months old, my father divorced my mother. He soon remarried and started a new family in Jiangxi where he held a senior management position at a large, state-owned cement plant. His experience is very typical among those so-called nanxia ganbu (南下干部), officials and cadres sent to the south. [TQ: On the eve of China’s Liberation in 1949, as the People’s Liberation Army marched south, tens of thousands of cadres from Communist-held areas like Shandong and Hebei in the north were sent to southern provinces to help extend the new regime. A divorce boom followed, as many of the cadres separated from their previous spouses, who were usually left in the countryside.]
I started school at the age of six but dropped out in fourth grade. My mother, a rural woman abandoned by her husband, couldn’t afford fees for both my older brother and me and naturally I was sacrificed. Two years later I started studying again, at a local agricultural middle school where we studied in the morning and farmed the school’s land in the afternoon. I graduated with a junior middle school diploma—the highest qualification I have ever held—and ever since I have lived an ordinary life like millions of other rural women in China.
In contrast, my half-brothers and sisters born in Jiangxi, and my [Shandong]I brother who was sent to Jiangxi later, all had the chance to go to university and find city jobs.
In 1975, I was introduced to my fiancé (duixiang), an accountant then serving in the Air Force in Fujian Province. I soon agreed to marry him, although he came from a poor family in a notoriously poor village next to mine. I had always adored military men and felt a lot for them. My father was a veteran who had joined the guerrillas early in the anti-Japan war era.
We were married in Fujian and returned to Shimen Nanling Village (石门南岭村) where my husband was born and brought up. He retired from the army and was assigned a job at a local specialty food company. The job wasn’t too bad, but he had to travel frequently to Hangzhou and Shanghai to source goods.
The village was so notoriously poverty-stricken that I was the first new wife in eight years to marry into it. No matter how handsome they were, young men in the village couldn’t find women because they were too poor. Some people laughed at my decision, but I didn’t care. As long as he was honest and healthy, I believed, our life would gradually get better.
The village is just an hour’s ride to the County town, and another four hours by highway to Jinan [capital of Shandong Province]. But after 1966 the peasants had no land to farm because 700 mu [47 hectares] of fertile land was confiscated by the Commune to build a reservoir. [TQ: People’s Communes were the township-level administrative unit in China from the late 1950s to the mid-1980s.] Villagers got compensation of 80 yuan per room [for houses that were flooded by the reservoir], but could hardly find other livelihoods. As a result, nearly all households had to depend heavily on relief food and small cash hand-outs to survive.
I gave birth to a baby boy in 1978. Two previous baby girls failed to survive shortly after their births.
Eight years after the marriage, in 1983, my husband suddenly had a fit due to a blood clot [cerebral thrombosis] and was no longer able to look after himself. Doctors didn’t tell me the detailed reasons, but I reckon it was working too hard. From then on I began to suffer plenty of bitterness, taking care of him while shouldering the family burden: farming, raising pigs and feeding our son.
I was appointed as Women’s Director of the Village Committee in 1980, the very same year our commune adopted the household contract responsibility system [ie, disbanded collective production]. The post usually goes to women, and their main job is to monitor birth control. Four years later, I had the great honour of joining the Communist Party.
My husband passed away on New Year’s Eve of 1994.
I was promoted to Deputy Party Secretary of the village, which had nearly tripled in size to 348 households as it was integrated with two neighbouring villages under the new name Xihu Village (西湖村).
The financial situation took an abrupt downturn in 1998 when the Party Secretary decided to invest in fish-cage farming, but this resulted in a net loss of over 400,000 yuan. In addition, muddled financial management combined with mis-allocation of building and arable land had turned the whole village into a complete mess. Villagers complained a lot. Most men went straight out to find temporary jobs in nearby towns and cities, and came back only during peak agricultural periods. [TQ: There has of late been a marked feminisation of agriculture in China. According to veteran gender trainer and activist, Liang Jun (梁军), rural women now take on more than 60% of farmwork, as men migrate into more profitable, non-agricultural work.]
It was at this critical point that the higher-level Party Committee appointed me as Village Party Secretary. My first inclination was to refuse. I thought to myself: I am a widow with nobody to draw strength from; how could I cope with all this? But it’s hard to say no to the Party. In the end I accepted the offer and took up the post in late 1998. Later I learned that before the higher-level cadres came to talk me round, they had consulted with old Party members and retired cadres who all recommend me as the only suitable candidate.
I was under great pressure. The nearly twenty year’s experience I already had as a grassroots cadre made me fully aware just how seriously decayed our village had become, and that’s what I had to take over. A bankrupt village!
I still clearly remember the first few days after taking the post when I, together with the Village Committee leader and accountant, both men, stayed up until two in the morning, puzzling over where to begin.
For starters, I was determined to clear up the complicated chain of debts. It was tough, though. Yet in less than a month, we had cleared up 60,000 yuan.
In 2004, I was encouraged to stand in the competitive elections for Village Committee head; I succeeded and so became a yijiantiao (一肩挑; a bamboo shoulder pole for carrying two weights): both village head and village Party Committee leader.
[TQ: since 2003, “village self-governance” policy in some areas has encouraged the roles of Village Committee leader (村长) and village Party Secretary (村支书) to be combined in a single person. This is commonly done either by encouraging Party members to sit in Village Committee elections, or by inviting elected village heads to join the Party if they are not already members, and training them for the Party Secretary role. Some observers believe this practice improves administrative efficiency while reducing costs, and thereby tax burdens, as well as reducing friction between the two committees. Others are concerned that concentration of power is apt to lead to abuse]
In 2005, I organised villagers to build fifteen li of mountain roads, with villagers voluntarily donating 14 yuan each. [One li=500 metres.] This Spring I led villagers to transform 200 mu (13 hectares) of wasteland into arable land.
Our village has seen great changes. Annual cash income per capita has soared from 600 yuan when I married to four to five thousand yuan now. Many households have built up two or three storied tile-roofed houses, with telephones and cable TV installed. Paved roads connect one house with another. Over a dozen families now specialise in breeding fish or in raising poultry or sheep and earn quite decent incomes. Others specialise in catching the fish and selling them on to retailers, and two families have formed [professional] bands to give live music shows in the local area. [TQ: Performing bands are often hired in rural China for special occasions such as weddings and funerals. The families who hire the bands are expected to provide them with food and cash payment.]
More responsible than men
As a Party member, I am committed to completing whatever task the Party assigns me, within or even ahead of schedule.
Comparatively speaking, women leaders usually have a tighter hand on money and tend to think in a more details-driven way. In rural China, men are very likely to spend every penny they get on smoking or gambling.
For a long time I saw the need to build a bridge linking the two hamlets that were separated by the reservoir, and I made up my mind to do it. Without the bridge, villagers, especially school children, have to cross by a ferry and it’s very dangerous on rainy days. County officials have come to visit the site many times, but they couldn’t finance the investment estimated to be more than CNY300,000 (USD 37,500).
In early 2004, during my second three-year term as Party Secretary, a local cement plant offered CNY 110,000 for the right to access eleven mu of waste land on the outskirts of the village. But how could we cope to build a bridge with just that much? The other members of the two committees (Party and Village) strongly opposed my idea. Instead, they proposed to divide up the income from the wasteland between the villagers. I worked out it wouldn’t be much of a fortune when shared between more than 1,100 commune members ([TQ: villagers are in fact no longer ‘commune members’ but Ms. Wu still uses this way of referring to them). Whereas, although far from enough, it would at least be a starting point for building a bridge that everyone would benefit a lot from, especially old people and schoolchildren.
Touched by my perseverance, the plant manager promised to also donate 110 tonnes of cement, on condition that we agree to set up a memorial stone for them on the bridgehead. Many villagers were willing to volunteer their labour since it was for their good. And now at last the bridge is there, with some loans from the Rural Credit Cooperative. I know if a man were in my position he wouldn’t have been able to do what I have achieved.
Quite recently one of the villagers, Li Shengyuan (李生元), who is in his sixties, became seriously ill. He was very likely to be paralyzed if he didn’t get treated in time. But as the only breadwinner in the family, with a teenage daughter and an 80 year old mother, the bill for an operation was beyond his means.
He expressed the intention of committing a suicide in a talk with our accountant who quickly reported to me.
I immediately called an emergency meeting for Party members and village representatives. We decided to help Li, and called for donations over the village public address system. Within two hours we collected about five thousand yuan and the richest man in our village drove Li and a couple of volunteers to the hospital. Doctors were moved, saying they couldn’t believe there are officials nowadays who care so much about villagers.
After years of working together, the two men I lead both see me as someone they can rely on (靠山). They know my strength is dealing with people, solving problems. In my opinion, women officials have some advantages in “begging” for favorable policies and investments. We are less concerned than men about “losing face”.
In other people’s eyes, I’m a typical “strong woman” (女强人). I walk so fast that few people can keep up with me. I dare to speak my mind. To be a village head in China, you have to be strong enough or you will be bullied and unable to solve any problem.
I’m very keen to develop tourism in our village. It has very good potential, with green mountains and clean water, and has been identified by the county as a pilot for “civilised eco-village construction” (生态文明村建设). Building a new socialist countryside doesn’t just mean plenty of food and enough clothes, roomy houses and tidy roads. Spiritual civilisation (精神文明) is also important, requiring all villagers, including rural women, to be up-to-standard citizens (合格公民). If their mindsets aren’t open to changes, the new construction will not succeed.
We sent our son to the army in 1995. A few years ago he became a driver for Public Security Bureau officials in the far north, Heilongjiang Province, and he has started a family there. I saved all the money from the sale of five pigs I raised, and from an apricot orchard, and posted it to him. In theory I should have an annual wage [as a public official] of two to three thousand yuan. But for years I didn’t get a single penny, as the village finances were empty. No money at all. Still, as a rural woman, I don’t need to pay for food or vegetables that we grow ourselves. And my brother-in-law and his sons give me things I don’t plant.
I spend 80% of my time and energy on village affairs, although I seldom go to the village office. (We have one, very lucky, and it’s just one hundred meters away from my house.) I stay at home busy with my farming and husbandry. Whenever some thing arises, they come to fetch me. I am often too busy to cook supper for myself.
It’s not all success and achievement. I often shed tears when struggling over tough problems with no idea how to cope with them.
I don’t mean to get remarried. So many years have passed with me living by myself. If I had such a plan, I would have remarried at a much younger age. What have I got to fear from continuing to live alone? Just think of my mother: a rural woman
divorced at the age of 27, with two kids. She suffered tremendous prejudices and pressure in that old society. But my life now is fine. My late husband’s brothers and families have given me enormous support.
My third term [as village leader] will soon be up, next year. I don’t want to carry on any more. I’m getting older, and my health is not too good. But I’m not ready yet to tell the higher-level leaders because I know they probably won’t agree. It’s a delicate topic. I will just wait and see.
Wu Jing’ai was one of 100 women village leaders from all over China who came to Beijing in June to attend a forum organised by the Rural Women’s Culture and Development Centre and its flagship magazine, Rural Women, as part of a Women’s Political Participation program funded by the International Republican Institute.