Li works with village officials during a field trip to Nujiang prefecture in Yunnan. [Photo provided to China Daily]
Lack of modern amenities will not hold villagers back
The year 2014 was a watershed year in professor Li Xiaoyun's research into poverty reduction.
That winter, he traveled with a team of researchers from Beijing to Hebian village in Yunnan province.
The picturesque, ethnic Yao community, which is home to 58 families, sits on the edge of a subtropical forest.
Bordering Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam, Yunnan is known for its vibrant ethnic communities. For decades, it was also known for being underdeveloped and backward, and home to some of China's most intractable poverty.
What was initially intended to be a monthslong field study of the poverty-stricken community morphed into a yearslong involvement. By the time it ended in 2017, Li and his team had helped transform Hebian into a successful tourist destination, complete with bamboo hotels, 4G internet access, nightclubs, a network of paved roads and an immersive cultural experience that draws visitors from across the nation.
A rural development expert at China Agricultural University, Li said he had been involved in similar projects before Hebian, but most had been short term and many had faced funding issues.
Hebian offered the professor a lab at a time when curbing poverty was at the top of the official agenda, so he seized the opportunity, marshaled resources and was eventually able to help break the village's poverty cycle once and for all.
"I am better known as a college professor," the 60-year-old said, "but in fact, I wear a number of different hats, most noticeably as a practitioner."
Li began his career as a rural policy researcher with the Secretariat of the Communist Party of China's Central Committee in 1987.
In 1994, he began to teach at CAU and became dean of its rural development school four years later.
After decades of experience on the ground, he has embraced an approach that is developmental in nature and prizes sustainability.
His success at Hebian is testimony to that approach, and he has helped hundreds of ethnic Yao escape dire poverty by setting up a closed-loop industry that created jobs, not by doling out cash handouts.
Hebian's transformation has helped cement Li's position as a leader in China's recently concluded antipoverty campaign.
Distinguished by its tailor-made approach, the campaign, which ran from 2012 to last year, eliminated absolute poverty from the Chinese mainland and represented an upgrade of the nation's decadelong attempt to aid poverty-stricken inland regions.
In 2012, the CPC decided at a gathering in Beijing to turn China into a "moderately prosperous society in all respects" by this year to mark the Party's centenary.
Absolute poverty－such as that afflicting Hebian－came into the authorities' crosshairs.
When Li arrived in the village in 2014, poverty was ubiquitous. Children ran about barefoot outside crumbling homes. Livestock lived alongside people in traditional bamboo buildings, and the dirt roads became muddy in freezing rain. With no savings and no certified doctors, few inhabitants spoke Mandarin or ventured much outside the village as change was stigmatized.
"People who sought to leave would be mocked for not knowing their place," Li said. "But in fact, seeking change is a form of progress."
For generations, inhabitants managed to get by on razor-thin profits from cultivating sugar cane and rubber trees.
Livelihoods were often at the mercy of fluctuating demand and－due to the village's isolation－earnings were diminished by mounting transportation costs.
Li realized that the time and energy required to remake Hebian would be gargantuan, and as a result, he decided to move in.
He formulated a diagnosis, as well as a cure. Villagers were poor because they lacked assets capable of generating a sustainable income. Worse, they lacked the knowledge to monetize any such assets they had. But Hebian definitely had some things going for it. For example, its bamboo buildings were embodiments of Yao culture, and it overlooked breathtaking views of rolling rainforests.
Li and his team settled on a plan to turn the village into a holiday resort that could also be used as a conference center.
Clockwise from left: Professor Li Xiaoyun's Xiaoyun Poverty Aid Center stations in Hebian village in Xishuangbanna, Yunnan province. A coffee shop Li helped develop in the village. Li poses with a woman and her child while conducting a field survey in Zhaotong, Yunnan. [Photos provided to China Daily]
He launched a charitable organization, the Xiaoyun Poverty Aid Center, to channel fast-growing public and corporate donations.
With only three full-time workers－Li, as an executive, a driver and an accountant－the center was run by volunteers, many of them colleagues and students from Beijing. They included professional designers and architects who helped transform the village's traditional homes into tourist guest rooms, which now bring in quarterly revenues of between 20,000 and 50,000 yuan ($3,094 to $7,736).
In addition, Li developed an e-commerce center to sell farm produce, including organic eggs and pomelos because he did not believe in relying on a single source of income.
So far, the center has invested about 3 million yuan, and the government has contributed a further 15 million yuan.
The local government also helped by providing loans and subsidies for farmers looking to build new homes or run farmstays.
Li is known for having transformed Hebian, but he said that Hebian has transformed him, too.
"The most inspirational part of my years there is that I realized people were not poor because they were lazy," he said in an interview with online video service Guanvideo, referring to a perception that has become deeply-rooted since China embraced market-oriented reforms in 1978. "It's just the opposite; many poor people are exceptionally diligent."
Li attributed the source of the village's impoverishment to its previous lack of modernity in the form of an industrialized way of life and production.
More specifically, Hebian had been poor because it lacked access to a proper supply chain, a pool of skilled labor and education that underpins all progress.
"Poverty is not only about materials, it is also about perception," he said.