Wang He heads to the fields in the morning with the peasants. He knows how to work the crops: watering, fertilizing, weeding. But when he graduated from Beijing University of Agriculture two years ago, the law and politics major had dreamed of becoming a lawyer.
He's an assistant to the head of Sanjie Village, Kangzhuang Township in Beijing's Yanqing County, under the Chinese government scheme to employ 100,000 college graduates in villages over five years from 2008.
The scheme aims to revitalize rural China by changing the grassroots cardre structure and boosting the government's "new countryside" initiative. It also helps to employ the nation's rising tide of graduates.
"Our strong point is our knowledge, but we also have our weakness -- a lack of practical experience," says Wang, 26.
Most villagers hope the graduates can bring new expertise to improve their living standards.
Wang introduced the "colorful sweet potato" with the help of his alma mater. The new species has bright yellow, white and purple flesh and is highly nutritious. It also costs more than the ordinary sweet potato.
Villagers previously planted corn and earned less than 1,000 yuan (US$142.86) per mu (0.07 hectares), but the figure doubled after they planted the new sweet potato species.
Wang often works in the fields, but he knows he's of little help. "Peasants are much more adept at farming, that's their strong point. It's pointless for graduates to focus on farm work. We should do something they want to do, but they can not do."
He focuses on technology, marketing, publicity and connecting with the outside world. His routine work is chores, such as recording village meetings, issuing certificates and broadcasting notices.
He also applies his legal knowledge to mediate in conflicts between the villagers and help write legal papers.
Real life is different from what he learnt in books. "Mediating conflicts between neighbors needs more worldly wisdom than legal knowledge. Sometimes laws are useless here," Wang says.
However, many graduates find it hard to adjust. "It's hard to feel accepted," says an anonymous graduate. "Families have often been here for generations and it's really, really hard for them to accept an outsider."
On-line discussion about the scheme is abuzz with doubts such as whether graduates can change the villages or be changed by the villages. Can they merge into village life or will they remain semi-detached?
Wang grew up in Beijing's rural Miyun District and has few problems in getting on. "The connections grow daily. You must greet villagers warmly or chat with them to show respect.
"Most of the villagers are aged over 40. Their children are studying or working in cities. They treat me like offspring and few give me the cold shoulder as they don't want their children to suffer the same treatment."
An anonymous graduate tells how he started work with little idea of what to do. Village heads assigned him chores like typing or moving flowerpots. "The real world is quite different from what I have been taught. Some ugly behavior just makes me sick.
"I feel the village is changing me, not I'm changing the village. I'm considering resigning." Failing to fulfil the contract means losing the preferential treatment on insurance or further study.
Young graduates are bringing new attitudes to villages. Hu Jiandang, 24, a martial arts graduate from Beijing Sport University, is assistant to the head of Wangchang Village in Panggezhuang Township in Beijing's Daxing District. He found an old couple, who made a living raising cattle, were isolated as their son had been in prison for almost 30 years for robbery.
"A family with such a son is often ostracized," Hu says. On the old man's birthday he bought a cake and took photos. "Locals tell me to stay away from them, but the couple were moved and felt warmth from the outside world. I believe my behavior will help villagers accept them gradually."
Wang says the conservative thinking is especially hard-set. "It's understandable. Peasants are usually poorly educated with little access to information. They are mostly poor and are wary of trying anything new that could cost them."
The experiences give the young first-hand understanding of rural China, which still lags far behind urban China.
"Urban people might struggle to buy an apartment or a car, but the peasants struggle for basic necessities like food and clothes. A child can consume all their savings and put them into debt," says Wang.
"But rural China is experiencing a golden period of growth with preferential policies from the government and promises of a bigger market."
Two years have seasoned Wang. "I was too idealistic and believed all the things I planned could come true, but now I'm more practical."
After three years in villages, the graduates enjoy priority in applying for public service posts and graduate study opportunities.
"Chinese peasants are leading too hard a life," says Wang. "They labor from dawn to dusk, but do not get the returns they deserve. I want to maximize their returns, particularly as my parents are peasants too. As long as I'm needed here, I will continue with the job."
(Xinhua News Agency October 1, 2008)