We Can't Change the Game, but We Can Make a Better Board for Ourselves to Play On
On a recent visit to Dalishu Village in Fengcheng, Dandong, Liaoning Province, I asked Mao Fengmei and his son Mao Zhengxin, who represent two generations of village Party secretaries, about their aspirations. Their answers reflected the shared dream of the locals, which is simply to live a good life. The elder Mr. Mao said, "I want the people of Dalishu to have lives just as good as the city folk," and the younger Mr. Mao said, "I want the people of Dalishu to have lives so good that they make the city folk jealous!"
Lives as good as the city folk
At the start of the reform and opening up period over 40 years ago, Dalishu Village was a poor and desolate place. Grain was in short supply and had to be bought back from the state, any money spent had to be borrowed first, and even the salaries of village officials had to be scraped together from members of the commune. Meanwhile, the area was dominated by mountains, most of which were completely barren. What could be done in such dire conditions? Mao Fengmei's idea was thus: "We can't change the game, but we can make a better board for ourselves to play on."
From 1989 to 1998, the people of Dalishu worked incredibly hard to remake their board, turning the barren mountains into terrace farms. They molded more than 20 mountains, cleared out more than 70 ravines, dug out a reservoir and a river capable of retaining a total of 400,000 cubic meters of water, built 87 km of winding mountain paths and more than 700 hectares of high-quality terraces, established more than 1,700 hectares of orchards, and planted more than a million pear, peach, apricot, and chestnut trees. The once desolate area was thus transformed into the nation's largest village-level collective orchard, and the people of Dalishu gradually embarked on a path toward shared prosperity featuring simultaneous development of agriculture, industry, business, and tourism that is based on the collective economy and supplemented by the private sector.
Tourism in Dalishu Village took off by attracting visitors with its mountains covered in beautiful blossoming trees. Over time, the village opened up activities for tourists focused on sightseeing, fruit picking, health and wellness, film and television, local culture, sport and exercise, and revolutionary history, and turned itself into a unique AAAA-rated national tourist attraction. As the tourism industry brought local residents opportunities to earn more money through entrepreneurship, people who had once worked elsewhere returned in droves to start their own businesses. Over time, Dalishu Village also witnessed the establishment of more than 20 enterprises including a foundry, a carbon plant, a silk mill, an auto parts factory, a tannery, and a winery for producing Schisandra berry wine, as well as a reshuffling of the business environment through closures, mergers, and transitions along with transformation and upgrading. From what I learned, village-run enterprises have turned over 300 million yuan in profits.
The now flourishing village of Dalishu reshaped the mountains, built roads, and channeled rivers, making the environment more livable and giving residents a greater sense of wellbeing. Row upon row of detached houses were sold to the locals at cost, stipends were distributed to elderly residents on the Double Ninth Festival, and the best village primary school in all of Dandong was set up. Dalishu became one of the first villages designated as a National Culturally Advanced Village and included on the list of China's most beautiful villages. It has also been recognized for its leisure, sports, and rural tourism attractions. The people of Dalishu thus became able to enjoy lives as good as the city folk, and Mao Fengmei's pledge was fulfilled.
Lives that make the city folk jealous
Starting a business is hard, but keeping it running is even harder. The elder Mr. Mao and his generation stressed the importance of doing hard, solid work, but to keep up entrepreneurial momentum, working shrewdly is even more important. One must act on the basis of sound evidence and respect the market. Describing Dalishu's second wave of entrepreneurship, Mao Zhengxin said that the village is pursuing a tourism-centered approach featuring integrated growth of the primary, secondary, and tertiary sectors, and implementing a five-pronged strategy focused on using environmental conservation, industry, agriculture, tourism, and culture to make the village strong, stable, and successful.
Dalishu Village in Fengcheng, Dandong, Liaoning Province. PHOTO PROVIDED BY DALISHU VILLAGE
In developing the primary sector, a fresh approach was needed. This started with the orchards. The variety of fruit trees was updated, and the planting layout was optimized. An 80-hectare Korean pine seedling cultivation base was established, and specialty agriculture took off at a new pace. Land outside of the village was rented for planting blueberries and Schisandra berries. A vineyard with 74 greenhouses and a complex combining modern agriculture, tourism and leisure, and a countryside residential community were built, with the protected agriculture and rural sightseeing industries proving very successful. According to an employee at the complex, the area attracts more than 30,000 visitors a year, and local cherries can be sold at a price of 180 yuan per kilogram.
In developing the secondary sector, deeper advancement was needed. This started with pushing forward transformation and upgrading of the Jinyi titanium company, which is now a nationwide industry leader with sales revenue of more than 200 million yuan. Meanwhile, the Fengze Market was renovated and upgraded, becoming a modern retail hub. In addition, an incubator for new forms of entrepreneurship was established to support the growth of micro businesses. More than 30 businesses were accepted into the incubator, with close to 10 having been launched into business operation, providing employment for over 100 people in the process.
In developing the tertiary sector, higher quality was needed. With a focus on highlighting its major cultural attractions and adding new variety and models to the sector, Dalishu worked on establishing a three-part tourism structure centered on festival celebrations, unique experiences, and conference hosting. Conferences and training became the new hotbed of growth, with this small village turning into a training ground. In 2016, a base for educating and training officials and a center for hands-on teaching about socialist culture were established, which have together provided training to students more than a million times. The village has earned praise for training rural talent and for innovating in the application of the concept that "lucid waters and lush mountains are invaluable assets." According to Yu Li, deputy manager of the Dalishu ecotourism area, "Tourism has not only become Dalishu Village's mainstay industry, but also its distinctive calling card."
At the end of 2019, the village had total economic output of 1.6 billion yuan, collective assets worth over 600 million yuan, and 25 million yuan in disposable financial resources. Meanwhile, per-capita net income for village residents was 22,000 yuan, average living space per resident was more than 40 square meters, and employment was at 100%. As efforts to promote public wellbeing are continuing to unfold, the people of Dalishu are leading fuller and more stimulating lives, and growing happier year by year. The goal of giving the people of Dalishu lives so good that they make the city folk jealous has truly been realized.
(Originally appeared in Qiushi Journal, Chinese edition, No. 16, 2020)