By Anthony James
An Shang Village is tiny and unimpressive. Sitting on a flat plateau in Shaanxi Province with little groundwater irrigation, it’s nothing more than a mediocre farming community entrapped in a constant struggle to support its inhabitants. Though riddled with problems, people like An-Wei saw an opportunity to help a village provide for its future generations; little did he know that an offer to help would soon lead to a complicated and arduous system fraught with corruption.
As part of the US-China Peoples Friendship Association - MN Chapter's (USCPFA-MN) ongoing China Talk series, An-Wei was able to speak to Minnesotans and international students as well as screen the documentary about his experiences in An Shang Village. “China's Hidden Battlefield,” produced by Harrison Schaaf, exposes many of the deep-rooted problems that affect China's lower-class rural farmers and how one village learned to fight back.
An-Wei, the son of a farmer, grew up in An Shang Village. At an early age, An-Wei discovered that learning and studies came more naturally to him than the family apprenticeship. Since the family could only afford to send one child to school, An-Wei's older brother was selected to attend. On the first day home from class, An-Wei's older brother expressed his disapproval of going to school and his wish to remain home. An-Wei's reaction to the now discarded textbook was different, and his father gave his approval for An-Wei to attend class instead. From then on, An-Wei's simple life would change. He would leave An Shang Village to attend college, learn English, and later serve as a delegate of the Shaanxi (Province) Foreign Affairs Office to the United States. During his term with the Shaanxi Foreign Office, he crossed paths with many famous U.S. figures, including Jimmy Carter and Henry Kissinger.
An-Wei's family became actively involved with local organizations and helped volunteers travel from the United States to assist with various projects in China. An-Wei's daughter, An Lin, served as a consultant for St. Paul-based Global Volunteers. She often acted as a guide for visitors to China and she had a jovial and pleasant personality. In 1999, An Lin passed away in an auto accident while studying in the United States. The tragic event affected many volunteers and travelers who knew her. Soon donations flooded into Global Volunteers in her honor. After consulting with An-Wei, Global Volunteers decided that the donations, approximately US$250,000, would go to An Shang Village for a school to be built in An Lin’s name.
Building a school seemed like a simple task. An Shang Village's current school, much like the thousands of preschool-12th grade academies in similar farming villages, was in dire need of an upgrade and had inadequate classroom sizes. With so many villages in need of better schools, An-Wei wasn't even privy to put one his hometown either, but pressure from the locals to bring the generous funding from the United States to An Shang Village was the only option that was agreeable to the local government. Even though An-Wei's idea addressed a well-defined problem in the area, he found that many obstacles threatened to destroy his dream.
The culture of the Chinese farming communities were a large factor. Finding land to build a school represented taking away a valuable resource for the farmers. Land could not be appropriated without a negative impact on farming families’ way of life. Apart from the farm culture itself, the rural Chinese community was still largely affected by the old traditions. Clan rivalries and family feuds pushed against any sort of desire for change, even if everyone agreed that it would be beneficial for the village. Family leaders did not want to see rival clans benefit from their own loss as grudges last generations. An-Wei, who had entered this forum after years of working internationally, saw that there would frustrations ahead; little did he know how much worse it could get.
An Shang Village's governance consisted of local officials (heads) who were elected by the county heads. Without the support of the An Shang Village council, An-Wei found his only option to push for his school was to get into politics. With the support of the county government, An-Wei acquired a city magistrate seat, much to the dismay of the local family heads. As he reviewed the village records, An-Wei could see that many of the village leaders were taking money for themselves and not using the funds to improve the village. Even if An-Wei brought in the donated funds from the United States, including a large number of new computers, much would end up in the hands of the village leadership instead of going to the children.
For An-Wei, the future appeared bleak. There was no way his fellow officials would let his vision come to fruition. For many it seemed an insurmountable task that An-Wei could bring the village committee to his side; but An-Wei's prowess in politics and law proved them wrong. After a slow and steady debate in the late ‘90s, the National People's Congress put into law that local governments could hold democratic voting on a small scale so as to advance policies for their villages. Armed with these policies, An-Wei hosted a local folk festival and released documentation of how local funds were being spent. This did not bode well for An-Wei or his opposition. Before the village could vote, family members of An-Wei and those of his opponents were assaulted, abused and threatened. But even in enduring hostility, An-Wei believed that most villagers in An Shang Village were good people who believed in his project. Soon his belief would be affirmed when the first An Shang Village congress was elected and new policies voted on by the villagers were enacted without intervention by the national party. With the new efficient process in place, the villagers were able to work on cleaning the village, constructing new roads, and approving the building of An-Wei’s school.
An-Wei's rocky path to building his school reveals China's hidden battlefield - the tremendous undercurrent of issues affecting a majority of Chinese that is rarely seen outside of the country. In major cities, China is overflowing with progress and development; at the most local level, the cries for change is stifled by corruption, poverty and gigantic achievement gaps. For many who live in rural villages, the ability to leave village life in order to earn a college degree or pursue other endeavors is slippery and steep climb compared to the rest of China's middle class. While An Shang Village's school is only a speck within the mass of villages in need of strong progressive leadership, An-Wei’s accomplishment of bringing democracy and cooperation is enough to demand attention. With the new legislation from party leaders that will enable those farthest away from Beijing to enact change within their homeland, farmers and families will feel they are part of the system that can come together instead of tearing each other apart. An-Wei noted that during the school's first day of construction, around 10 villagers arrived to help. The next day, 50; and the day after that, 100. For him, this was a testament that even though the process of breaking through countless barriers brought pain and a toll on everyone in An Shang Village, in the end, the most sacred tradition prevailed: teamwork.