To spur rural development, China to send millions of students on 'volunteering' trips

Productivity has slumped in China's greying countryside, which has suffered a brain drain so severe that Chinese President Xi Jinping has called for talent to return to the countryside.
Productivity has slumped in China's greying countryside, which has suffered a brain drain so severe that Chinese President Xi Jinping has called for talent to return to the countryside.PHOTO: ST FILE

BEIJING (REUTERS) - China aims to send millions of students to work as volunteers in rural communities and set up entrepreneur organisations as it renews a push to narrow a yawning gap between rural and urban regions, an official document showed.

The drive reflects the ruling Communist Party's desire to raise the status of rural areas, where 577 million people live or which they call home, to avert a risk of social unrest, boost consumption and investment, and rein in growth of big cities.

Productivity has slumped in China's greying countryside, mostly dominated by small farmholdings and low-end industries, and which has suffered a brain drain so severe that President Xi Jinping has called for talent to return to the countryside.

Such a move would once have been unthinkable for a nation that considers urbanisation a ticket to prosperity.

In a March 22 document, the Communist Youth League (CYL) said it aimed to organise more than 10 million volunteering trips by 2022 for students pursuing technical degrees, seeking to deepen a "rural rejuvenation" drive christened by Mr Xi.

Students taking such trips, mostly during summer holidays, will spread knowledge on topics from science to finance and environment protection, besides joining in cultural activities and helping in educational and medical services, it added.

It is unclear, however, what incentives the government will offer to attract students, or if the trips will be mandatory.

The League also plans to help 100,000 young migrant workers return to rural home towns to work or start businesses, aiming for more than 80 per cent of rural counties to set up a "youth entrepreneur organisation" by 2022, it added.

Scepticism about the possible effectiveness of such policies has grown online, since rural earnings remain low and millennials living in cities are disconnected from their families' roots in the countryside.

Some critics online have compared the plan to Chairman Mao Zedong's programme of more than five decades ago that effectively exiled millions of fresh high school graduates from the cities to remote areas to be "re-educated", rooting out what he saw as bourgeois thinking.

"I thought it's a document from the 1960s," wrote Zhenglixiaodao, a user on China's Twitter-like Weibo.