Meaningful Living

Liu Shuangyan’s poverty relief efforts are rewarded as she sees villagers’ living standards improving with each passing day

“I hope that after poverty is eradicated nationwide at the end of 2020, I can proudly proclaim that the best years of my life were spent helping villagers emerge from poverty and embrace a prosperous life,” said Liu Shuangyan, head of the poverty alleviation task force and Party chief of Zhuji Village in Lixin County, Anhui Province.

Since she joined poverty relief forces in 2012, Liu has been elated to see villagers’ lives improving with time—the best reward for her hard work over the past nine years.

Recovery of ‘AIDS Village’

Liu Shuangyan was formerly a tax officer for Lixin County Tax Bureau before seeking to join poverty relief efforts in 2012 to answer the call of the nation. She was originally dispatched to Luxiaoying Village, the furthest from the county seat. The poverty-stricken village was plagued by muddy roads and abandoned farmland, and many residents were surviving by selling blood. Some contracted HIV, leaving the town with a reputation as “AIDS Village” and ensuring it was rarely visited by outsiders.

Liu still clearly remembers her first night spent in Luxiaoying: totally sleepless in complete silence except for the whistling wind. “I was extremely scared and called my mom to tell her I wanted to go home,” Liu recalled. “My mom tried hard to encourage me, noting that others could do it, so I should be able to do it too, and that since I chose the village, I should do my job well so that nobody could blame me for any failures.”

Encouraged by her mother, Liu became determined to face down any challenges of her new job. “In the early days, my work proceeded slowly because I was not familiar with the villagers,” Liu said. “Soon, I realized that nobody would follow you without trust.” So, she mustered the courage to visit each of the 40-plus AIDS patients in the village to understand their situations.

The HIV-infected villagers had long suffered from discrimination and exclusion from the secular community, so much so that they had lost confidence and largely given up on life. With educational pamphlets in hand, Liu Shuangyan knocked on every door in the area to spread AIDS-related knowledge and find jobs for them. Meanwhile, she organized village cadres to deliver milk, food and clothing purchased with village funds as well as provided monthly subsidies to AIDS families. A nine-year-old girl who faced discrimination after her mother died of AIDS, received some long-lost “maternal love” from Liu. After Liu looked after her as she ate, bathed, and played, the little girl gradually opened her heart and became lively and cheerful.

During investigation tours around the village, Liu realized that local poverty was mainly caused by the isolated geographical location and inconvenient transportation, which led to an absence of industrial development and marketing channels for farm produce. She decided to take action to fix the situation. After numerous attempts, she finally secured a 500,000-yuan (US$71,350) grant to build a three-kilometer cement road. Local residents’ traffic worries eventually became history when trucks loaded with produce could finally avoid the “mud road.”

“This road provides our crops and vegetables access to markets that will improve our living standards,” said villager Lu Dibin, who thanks Liu for it.

Road building is far from the only step to eradicate poverty, according to Liu. She purchased cleaning equipment and organized a sanitation team, seeking to build a beautiful village. As the village has taken on a new look, local residents have regained confidence in life.

Today, the beautiful and neat living environment and thriving agricultural industries are fueling Luxiaoying Village’s journey to prosperity.

Building a Beautiful Home

After her term in Luxiaoying ended in late 2014, Liu applied for another term of poverty alleviation work instead of returning to the tax bureau in the county seat. This time, she opted for Zhuji, a deeply impoverished village, where she would serve as Party chief and head of the poverty alleviation task force.

Compared to Luxiaoying, Zhuji was an even more daunting task for poverty reduction: A total of 763 of the 5,000 villagers were registered as poverty-stricken by the local government. Infrastructure was lacking, with only one mud road connecting the village to the outside world. Locals were drinking solely well water and suffered from frequent blackouts caused by voltage instability. Even worse, they had no faith in the newcomer at first.

“People commented on her being so young and thin, and everyone doubted she would be able to make changes,” recalled villager Zhu Guilan. However, to their surprise and delight, Liu bought and installed new road lamps for the village nursing home with her own housing allowance just a few days after arriving.

“I will do whatever I can to help you improve your lives!” Liu Shuangyan stressed to the villagers, pledging to lead them out of poverty and help them reap a fortune. After investigation visits, Liu realized that Zhuji Village had favorable natural conditions and many locals had experience with animal breeding. So, she encouraged the villagers to develop the breeding industry.

Zhu Xia and his wife both suffer from slight physical disabilities and had been living on government support. Upon Liu’s advice, the couple started raising ducks. Liu helped them acquire interest-free loans and invited experts to instruct them on breeding techniques and other animal care skills. Zhu’s duck farm now earns more than 48,000 yuan (US$6,850) each year, which has lifted the family out of poverty.

Zhou Yajun was another impoverished villager, with a chronically ill wife and two school-age kids. Liu Shuangyan provided him a “poverty alleviation sheep” and encouraged him to earn money by raising sheep. She also invited experts to provide technical instructions for Zhou. After five years, Zhou is known locally as the “sheep czar” and earns nearly 60,000 yuan (US$8,560) a year. He did not want to sell the “poverty alleviation sheep” because it heralded so much good fortune.

Meanwhile, Liu Shuangyan also led villagers to plant fruit trees and develop solar power generation. Using funds of more than 10 million yuan (US$1.43 million) raised from various sources, the village completed a power grid upgrade, renovated dilapidated houses, constructed a fitness and cultural plaza and a library, built tap water pipelines, and rebuilt village-level highways. By the end of 2017, the poverty headcount ratio in Zhuji Village had dropped to 0.6 percent from 13 percent in 2014, and the village was designated a provincial-level demonstration site for the construction of beautiful countryside.

Liu’s hard work gained her respect and gratitude from local villagers, who began intimately calling her “Shuangyan,” while some elders lovingly referred to her “Honey”, a sharp contrast to her original title of “Chief Liu.” In March 2018, her term as a poverty alleviation worker ended a second time, and Liu again faced the choice of staying or leaving.

Many villagers went to the village head to beg him to persuade the beloved Liu to stay. The outpouring of support drove Liu to continue assisting the village. She became determined to make Zhuji a stunning locale and secure total victory in poverty eradication, which she humbly refers to as a “small ambition.”

Preventing Return to Poverty

This year is China’s target deadline for eradication of absolute poverty nationwide, but the COVID-19 outbreak created new roadblocks for achieving the goal. In February, the height of the epidemic in China, Liu Shuangyan and her colleagues worked in shifts around the clock to prevent the spread of the virus. Since the village heavily relies on animal breeding, the top priority was placed on epidemic containment. Liu consulted experts on the possible impact of the coronavirus on livestock and poultry and introduced related precautions to local farmers. She traveled to the county seat to purchase 60 kilograms of disinfectant with her own money and hired professionals to disinfect the village. She also managed to buy 1,200 masks on her own dime and distributed them to villagers in need.

Poverty reduction is no less daunting amid epidemic prevention and control. Liu and her colleagues strived hard to lift more people out of poverty while closely monitoring the alleviated to make sure that none slipped back into poverty due to the disaster.

One day in April, Zhou Wenfeng, a duck farmer, rushed to Liu Shuangyan’s office for help. After listening to Zhou’s worries about stagnating duck sales, Liu immediately contacted related agencies and in only a few hours, Zhou received a phone call from a procurement company.

“I started explaining Zhou’s situation to the company, and upon getting the details, they promptly purchased the ducks which minimized his losses,” Liu recounted.

Lixin County, where Zhuji Village is located, was once classified as a high-risk area for the epidemic, with 43 confirmed cases of the coronavirus pneumonia. On February 28, as the epidemic eased there, Lixin County was downgraded to a low-risk area and began to resume economic activity. Liu’s work also resumed with she and her colleagues going door to door to gain demographic information about villagers working away from home.

They visited the homes of all 154 villagers who had worked in cities last year. Due to the epidemic, some migrant workers were forced to stay home.

Lixin County issued notice of job vacancies, opening some 4,000 positions at more than a hundred local companies. However, the offered jobs either had age restrictions or required certain skills. Liu maintained close contact with each company over the phone, and finally two agreed to relax recruitment requirements. Liu immediately led several villagers to interview with the companies. The villagers seemed more interested in one offering breeding jobs because such work would enable them to take care of their families without leaving home.

Thanks to Liu’s work, Zhuji Village discovered a new driver for economic growth. “We always love to see people able to return home to start businesses and lead their peers in making fortunes together,” Liu said. The village established a planting base for Abelmoschus manihot, a traditional medicinal herb, which began operation at the end of April.

According to Liu’s calculations, each mu (0.16 acres) of land can yield up to 1,000 kilograms of Abelmoschus manihot, which would produce revenues of about 2,000 yuan (US$286). With state subsidies for the development of specialty planting and breeding considered, the income of villagers will be greatly improved.

When there is faith in the heart, there is power in the engine, according to Liu. “Poverty alleviation has made my life more meaningful,” she said. “I am excited to continue my efforts to lead all villagers on a path to prosperity.”

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