Chinese Grads 'Go West' to Serve in Provinces

Wang Fengbin, 25, a psychology graduate, advises students and teachers at a middle school in the Xinjiang region.
Wang Fengbin, 25, a psychology graduate, advises students and teachers at a middle school in the Xinjiang region. (By Edward Cody -- The Washington Post)
By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 15, 2007

AWATI, China -- Clad in an official-looking white smock, the newly minted doctor leaned over the Uighur peasant woman lying facedown on a consultation table. One by one, he removed several glass suction cups he had fixed to her lower back to ease her pain.

"There you are," Liu Yonggang told her in Mandarin Chinese after the last cup was pried off with a loud smack. The woman, who spoke the Turkic language of this area's native Uighur population, smiled to show her gratitude. "Be sure to come back tomorrow for another treatment," Liu added.

Liu, 25, came clear across the country to treat families here, from a leafy medical school campus in China's east to this village of sunbaked dirt lanes in China's far western Xinjiang autonomous region. He was sent by the Communist Party Youth League, which for each of the past five years has selected 10,000 volunteers to help people in China's least developed, and often ethnically strained, regions.

The Go West program, as it is known, encourages freshly graduated teachers, engineers, agronomists, administrators and doctors to pledge one or two years to the cause.

The program reflects a long-standing party doctrine encouraging students to take their knowledge to the countryside and share it with peasants -- a policy that led to compulsory service and massive disruptions during the Cultural Revolution. But it also fits smoothly into a government campaign to develop China's remote western reaches more swiftly and integrate their ethnic minorities into an economic and political system run by the majority Han Chinese.

University students, encouraged by telephone solicitations from Youth League officials and a burst of propaganda every spring, have responded in increasingly large numbers. Party officials announced recently that 60,000 graduates applied this year for the 10,000 posts being staffed. Volunteers were motivated by a desire to help the less fortunate, some of them said in interviews, but also by a sense of adventure and a desire to avoid facing the increasingly difficult search for a job after graduation.

From among the applicants, candidates are chosen on the basis of loyalty to party doctrine, physical health and psychological stability, in addition to competence in their field, officials explained. Although ideological orthodoxy is at the top of the list of requirements, the officials said, only about a fourth of those chosen in past years have been party members. Hou Baosen, the program's deputy director, told a youth-oriented Web site that volunteers above all must have a "loving heart."

The volunteers are sent to Tibet and to Yunnan and other provinces, where the experience can be something of a jolt. When Liu showed up last summer in Awati, in the dry flatlands of Xinjiang about 200 miles south of Urumqi, he was assigned primitive quarters with unadorned concrete walls. Aside from books and television, Awati offered nothing to do at night but rest up for the next day's line of patients. A couple of hole-in-the wall restaurants serve tasty Xinjiang noodles and roast lamb, but close soon after dusk.

In any case, most of the locals speak their own language and have their own Muslim customs. They have little in common with a Han Chinese doctor from the prosperous northeast that is two time zones and several eras away.

The Youth League had organized a week of familiarization lectures in Urumqi before Liu's arrival in Awati, he recalled, so he knew what to expect. But his greatest attribute might have been his own background. Like many of the volunteers, Liu came from a farming family, inured to living close to the earth and imbued with small-town values.

For volunteers from China's large cities, the shock sometimes is not so easy to overcome. One volunteer who left the comforts of Shanghai was so put off by life with the peasants that he opted out, officials recalled.

Wang Fengbin, a psychology graduate of Shandong Normal University, said his time as a student adviser in Korla, near here, has taught him a lot about Xinjiang. Growing up in the northeast, he said, he envisioned this vast territory as backward and desperately poor. He was surprised by the comforts of life in Korla, a city of 300,000, he said. The richness of surrounding fruit orchards and vegetable fields also was unexpected.

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