Being a village official is undoubtedly an important responsibility, but most people would be hard put to envision it as a brilliant career start for freshly graduated students. How, then, did the rise of college graduate village officials come about? Why would scores of university graduates defy convention and take up this down-to-earth job in the remote countryside, when they should be jumpstarting their city-bound, high-flying careers? And, what are these city-bred folks expected to accomplish in villages?
It’s that time of the year when a tidal wave of job seekers - comprising a few million local graduates and legions of overseas returnees - overrun Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen in their desperate search for a dream job. Qin Yuefei (秦玥飛) a freshly minted alumnus of Yale University, decided to take a less-traveled path. Clutching a 2011 Application Form for Hunan Provincial Selection of College Graduates to Work as Village Officials (湖南省2011年選聘大學生村官報名登記表，) and a notice of appointment, he found himself on an old-time green-painted train bound for Hejia Village (賀家村) of Hengyang City (衡陽市) , a small mountain village in Hunan province.
For some, this curious career choice raises questions. Being a village official is undoubtedly an important responsibility, but most people would be hard put to envision it as a brilliant career start for a fresh graduate. How, then, did the rise of college graduate village officials (CGVOs) (大學生村官) come about? Why would people like Qin Yuefei make the unorthodox choice to work in the countryside, when they have everything they need to launch their high-flying urban careers? And what are these city-bred folks expected to accomplish in villages?
The debut of college graduate village officials
China’s villages have always been sluggish when it comes to development: lured by higher pay and better-developed medical system in cities, rural migrants move to urban centers in droves, leaving villages with a dearth of talented young people. Given this, rural development is handicapped. To address the “three rural issues (agriculture, villages farmers and rural areas)” Jiangsu Province initiated a program in 1995 that hired college graduates as grassroots-level village officials.
Over time the program proved to be a sensible solution both for promoting rural development and providing a new employment option for university graduates. This prompted other regions to follow suit and launch similar programs. In collaboration with other government departments, the Organization Department of the Central Committee (中組部) rolled out a scheme in April 2008 to select and recruit college graduates as village officials. What began as a pilot scheme at the regional level soon spread to the rest of the country and became a basic public policy. To bridge the gap in talent retention between city and villages, the program promises to give priority to college graduate village officials in working and getting promoted in the government system, among numerous other benefits, in order to attract graduates to work in villages and fulfill the target of “One College Graduate as Official for Each Village.”
The initiative is not unique to China: countries like Germany and South Korea also have preferential policies that guide and encourage university graduates toward seeking rural employment. It has proved to be an effective way to address the challenges of rural development in the urbanization process.
How are CGVOs recruited?
CGVOs are recruited in two ways. The first, initiated by the Ministry of Education (教育部) enrolls young people with technical secondary school-level education in tertiary education institutions for further education and training. Those who achieve a passing grade are awarded nationally recognized tertiary diploma qualifications, then given the post of village official in their own villages where they are expected to return. The second involves local government departments inviting all college students with a tertiary diploma or higher qualifications to apply for the post of village official. This is typically an appointment with a term of two to three years, via an open recruitment exercise. As outsiders to the village, these college graduates are free from the influences of dominant clans and families, and thus are able to take a relatively objective and fair approach in fulfilling their duties. This is currently the main method for recruiting college graduate village officials.
Not all university graduates are cut out to be village officials and the selection process sets a high bar for applicants seeking the post. They must also meet additional selection and shortlisting criteria set by different regional governments and administrative departments based on their own needs and circumstances. In general, candidates selected for recruitment are under 30 years old and have either graduated from junior college or higher education in the same year or have graduated within the past two years. Priority is given to Chinese Communist Party members (including probationary members) student cadres and persons who graduated from good universities with a degree or higher academic qualification.
Based on data from the Development Report of Chinese College Student Village Officials 2016-2017, with the exception of Tibet and Xinjiang, CGVOs in all regions of China possess a degree or higher academic qualification. A notable trend is the growing number of doctoral postgraduates among these candidates. In 2015, only 21 candidates possessed this level of academic qualification; by 2016, the number had increased to 102.
Graduates face stiff competition for the post: According to statistics from Jiangsu Province in 2017, an average of 6.2 candidates competed for each CGVO post, meaning that those who were successful were probably the best and brightest of the batch.
Not officially an “official”
A CGVO mainly serves as secretary to the village party secretary and an assistant to the village committee director, and also undertakes other tasks of both the party branch and the village committee as required. The nature of the post is that of a “position specially created by a village-level organization” instead of that of a civil servant. Thus, CGVOs do not count as bona fide officials.
While these young people have the advantage of having higher education and general knowledge and hence shoulder high social expectations, their real life (and initial) performance often fails to live up to the hype. As a result, villagers often come to the conclusion that these newly minted graduates know little about agricultural production, the rural situation and the villagers’ needs. Some villagers hold the view that the youngsters took up the post just to polish their career histories, and can’t wait to leave the village for good. The village officials may view the CGVOs as a threat to their own authority. As a result, some CGVOs have been relegated to glorified office tea boys or full-time paper-pushers.
How can this crisis of confidence be overcome?
The personal experience of Hu Jiandang (胡建黨) a CGVO of Wangchang Village (王場村) in Beijing’s Daxing District (大興區) may present a solution. When he arrived at Wangchang Village in July 2007, many doubted his ability. During his first month there he visited every homestead in the village - 60 in total. He reached the conclusion that his first step was to earn the people’s acceptance, then secure their recognition by being useful and from there move on to winning support and finally allegiance. This process has no shortcuts but once accomplished all future tasks can be carried out with ease.
So, how do CGVOs contribute to the rural community?
(1) Dissemination of new ideas: Gao Shangkun (高尚昆), CGVO of Beiyuanzi Village (北園子村) of Shandong’s Binzhou City (濱州市) decided to paint a series of cartoons on the village’s Cultural Wall to promote the benefits of adopting a healthy lifestyle, being scientific-minded, behaving in a civilized manner and seeking self-improvement. These easy-to-understand murals made a deep impression on viewers, and became a hit with the villagers.
(2) Creating new economic growth points by promoting new technologies and new ways of doing things: Li Jianxun (李建勛) a CGVO serving Songshan Village (松山村) of Qujing City (曲靖市) in Yunnan, had opted for courses on tea research, tea production and the tea ceremony during his studies, earning himself the professional qualifications of a senior tea master. In November 2015, when he started working at Songshan, a major tea producing village, the setting provided fertile ground for his expertise to shine. First, he organized over 30 technical training sessions to share new concepts and technologies with hundreds of tea growers; at the same time, he also co-founded a tea company whose mission is to explore ways for the tea industry to develop sustainably via a CGVOs+Enterprise+Tea Growers mode of collaboration.
In many cases, CGVOs have used their superior internet skills to seek out new economic opportunities, for example by establishing online stores to better promote the village’s unique local products and open up new sales channels for its agricultural produce. This helps initiate a positive cycle of growth and development for the village economy.
(3) Help improve governance at the rural grassroots level: Prior to 2002, officials of the village party branches and village committees in Hebi City (鶴壁市) Henan were 43.5 years old on average, and over 57 percent of them had a junior high school-level education or less; three years later, the influx of college graduates into the ranks of village officials lowered the average age of the group by 6.5 years, while raising the proportion of members with tertiary level or higher education by 27 percent. This had a positive effect on the age structure and education level of the village bureaucrats, and improved the quality of the governing bodies on the whole.
The CGVOs themselves also benefit from the training that comes with working for the village. Nian Wei (年巍) a CGVO, spoke of what he gained. “Social relationships in the village are often more complicated than they seem. Having served as a college graduate village official for several years, I have become better at understanding the intricate web of personal relationships, and can now navigate its complexities with ease.”
As viewed by outsiders: a “down to the countryside movement” repackaged for educated youths of the 21st century?
Since the launch of the CGVO scheme, many have referred to it as a revamped “down to the countryside movement (上山下鄉運動)” for educated youths, as both are characterized by a flow of educated people from the city to the countryside. The two major differences are that, in the case of the CGVOs, the candidates are selected through a rigorous process and work in the countryside of their own volition. What’s more, according to the Opinion Regarding the Establishment of a Long Term System for Selecting University Graduates to be Appointed to Work in Villages (關於建立選聘高校畢業生到村任職工作長效機制的意見) issued by the CCP Organization Department in 2009, once a CGVO’s three-year contract is up, he or she can choose from five major progression paths.
Though CGVOs do not enjoy high salaries, they receive employment and living subsidies provided jointly by the central and local governments, who also foot the bill for the CGVOs’ social security payments.
To sum things up, the CGVO program is markedly different from the “down to the countryside movement” in historical background, goals, procedures, the education level of participants and the benefits offered, and thus the two should not be confused.
As voiced by insiders: what are we to you?
After years of development and implementation, the changes wrought by the CGVO scheme are evident: the appointment of college students as village officials has breathed fresh air into the traditional mentality of village governance, and has helped promote rural economic development, as well as play a key role in addressing the “three rural issues”. The program has gradually earned widespread acceptance and recognition.
Among the CGVOs, however, doubters are emerging with the question “what are we to you, anyway? Unlike farmers, we have no land; we don’t enjoy any of the usual workers’ benefits; unlike government officials, we’re not part of the establishment, and our wages are only one-third or half of theirs!” As village governance systems are autonomous organizations run by villagers, most CGVOs, being outsiders, are not eligible as candidates in village government elections, and therefore cannot easily become bona fide officials. This limits what they can do for the village and bars them from rising up the ladder of village bureaucracy. As a result, some of them eventually leave for greener pastures.
Their motives for applying to be a village official may also be complex to begin with. Many candidates are drawn to villages for sentimental reasons and long to make a difference. Others, seeking to acquire experience only, simply view the post as a springboard to government jobs, and have no intention of making the villages their home.
The government has measures in place to give CGVOs a competitive edge in taking any of the five major progression paths upon completion of the initial term of office. However, the exams for the civil service and graduate studies are still extremely competitive. Consequently, it is unclear whether the prior consideration or bonus points granted to CGVOs for their service make a substantial difference. Finding the graduates further employment after their stint as CGVOs has become a matter of concern for the CGVO scheme.
At a national conference on college graduate village officials held on May 30, 2014, Zhao Leji (趙樂際) the then head of the Organization Department, proposed an answer to this dilemma: to keep the scheme at an optimal scale by limiting the number of CGVOs, and by doing so raise the overall quality of the selected candidates. The next two to three years saw total CGVO numbers decreased markedly - until they settled at around 150,000 people - enough to serve one-fourth of the nation’s administrative villages - for the years that followed.
According to Professor Hu Yuegao (胡躍高) of the China Agriculture University (中國農業大學) the decrease in number of serving CGVOs and the corresponding reduction in program scale are merely minor technical adjustments. The principles of the scheme remain unchanged. After all, the percentage of the rural population with a college-level education is still extremely low. It is natural that as the program continues to develop all over China and undergoes further refinement, it will continue to pursue the target of “One College Graduate as Official for Each Village .” It may even aim at “ten college graduate officials for each village”further down the road, in anticipation of the growing role college graduates will play in modernizing rural China and the agricultural sector. So, youths of the present and future who seek to prove themselves can rest assured; outsider or not, you will be able to make your own mark on villages - by helping to build a better future with them and for them!
Report Analysis: Development Report of Chinese College Student Village Officials 2016-2017 , youth.cn, Aug. 9, 2017
Insights from a Comparison of the College Graduate Village Officials Scheme and the Educated Youths Movement (「大學生村官」計劃與知青運動的比較及啟示), by Gu Chengwei (顧乘衛), Zhu Zhifen (祝志芬), Journal of Xiangnan University (湘南學院學報), Volume 30, Issue 3
Study of the Construction of a Policy System for the College Graduate Village Officials Scheme (大學生村幹部政策體系建構研究), by Liu Xizhong (劉西忠), Doctoral Dissertation at Nanjing University, May 2011
“Brother Yale Grad” Qin Yuefei: Why I Chose to Become a “Village Official” of China (「耶魯哥」秦玥飛：我為甚麼願意做中國「村官」), xinhuanet.com, June 30, 2017
Organization Department To Check Scale of College Graduate Village Official Scheme for the First Time: Total Number to be Slashed by 70,000 in Next Two - Three Years (中組部首控大學生村官規模：2-3年內減 7), news.sina.com.cn, Aug. 13, 2014