| Jiang Xufeng |
GUZHANG, Hunan (Xinhua) – Everybody at Maoping Village in central China’s Hunan Province greets the village head Long Xianwen with warmth and admiration, but it was not the same five years ago.
When Long initiated a tea plantation cooperative five years ago, scepticism from more than half of the 1,300 villagers clouded the plan, as they did not believe high-grade local green tea could
sell at more than 600 yuan per pound, as its price hovered below 300 yuan per pound then.
Maoping’s 95 per cent of residents are from the Miao ethnic minority, and its Miao name Hangwu is more romantic (village nestled by a stream). But the poor village had no access to tap water before 2009.
Miao people form one of the largest ethnic minorities in central and southwestern China including Hunan, and China has 55 ethnic minority groups.
Much of the Miao area is hilly or mountainous, and many Miao people live in an underprivileged condition. Maoping is located in Guzhang County, one of China’s poorest counties.
Miao people with business savvy like Long are rare, who made a fortune after years of investment in the real estate sector, and most of his time before 2009 he spent in cities far away from the village.
A fire in July 2009, which gutted more than 20 traditional wood houses plunged those families into extreme poverty and Long into deep thought. Long, the village head, decided to help them stand after a long discussion with his wife.
He stopped being a laissez-faire village chief, and hoped to use the tea cooperative as a platform to promote tea making and tourism.
“I plowed millions of my own money into the cooperative to show my confidence. I stopped my property business elsewhere and returned home to help neighbours get rich by growing tea, which is a better testimony to my values. If the village had access to tap water in 2009, the devastating fire will not happen,” Long said in an interview. His ambitious plan got off to a bumpy start. Long asked villagers to invest in the cooperative, but most refuted. After more than 30 consecutive nights of stump speeches, some villagers were persuaded to join the effort.
“I borrowed 30,000 yuan (4,903 US dollars) to support Long’s plan. It was a bold move for our family, but we don’t want to live in poverty for ever, as we need to support our daughter through university. Long’s money was the lion’s share of the initial 20 million yuan investment in the beginning,” said villager Shi Xiujie.
Shi and some villagers’ investments proved to be a wise decision. After several years’ efforts, the cooperative began to produce profits and Shi was given 7,000 yuan in dividends in 2014. She can also earn a 2,000-yuan monthly salary as a worker at the cooperative.
More villagers are pitching in their money and tea farmland to expand the cooperative. The per capita income of the village surged to 7,300 yuan in 2014 from 800 yuan in 2008. Every family at the village has access to tap water and about half of these households are connected with the outside world by the Internet.
The Guzhang Maojian tea from Maoping and nearby villages, a tribute to the imperial court in China’s Tang Dynasty (618-907) more than 1,000 years ago, regained its vigour and has even found its way to foreign markets like Australia.
The cooperative boasts a tea plantation of 4,000 mu (267 hectares), with farmers in neighbouring villages eager to join the cooperative, as the scale effect shows its strength. Long plans to enlarge the plantation to 10,000 mu by 2016. Long is willing to take on risks and has put up his house and gas station as collateral to get loans.
However, the ongoing Chinese government’s frugality campaign across the nation presents new challenges to Long and other tea plantation owners, and the cooperative is focusing on producing affordable but good-quality tea to cushion the impact and cater to needs of middle-class families.
Long also aims to diversify the business and embrace tourism and accommodation, as a generation of Chinese customers just discovered the joys of travelling and eating out. An expressway under construction can shorten the travel time between Maoping and Changsha by one hour by 2018.
“I am dreaming a big dream. I want my tea fans to stay in the hotels to be built in the village, pick tea themselves, and eat organic food. My cooperative members can have more money to make. I know the city life is stressing, so I want tea fans to enjoy the beautiful sunrise and sunset at our tea plantation as I do,” said Long, a photographer in his spare time.