After four years in the formerly poverty-stricken village of Chenxiaozhai, Liu Yuan says he will probably leave but will always cherish his experiences there.
In April 2017, the now 54-year-old Liu was one of 753 officials dispatched to hundreds of key villages in East China's Anhui province to work on poverty relief.
Formerly attached to the publicity department of the CPC's Fuyang city committee, Liu was appointed first Party secretary－a Party member deployed by higher authorities usually to oversee poverty relief work－of the village, which is in southern Linquan county, and he has been working to meet his goal ever since.
With a population of over 2.3 million according to the hukou, or household registration system, Linquan is China's most heavily populated county and was one of its most impoverished areas.
"About half the 6,900 villagers have migrated to cities for work," said Liu, adding that nearby Fuyang, which has a population of over 10 million, is famous as a source of migrant workers.
Before arriving in Chenxiaozhai, the new secretary was told that 112 villagers were classified as poverty-stricken and would be treated as a priority.
According to China's national definition of poverty at the time, the classification referred to anyone with an annual income of less than 2,855 yuan ($443).
"Poverty relief is not simply about increasing incomes, it's also about creating a better environment to ensure improvements will last," said Liu.
He said that he will never forget the sight that greeted him when he first arrived in Chenxiaozhai on April 28, 2017.
Infrastructure, like paved roads, was nearly nonexistent, and the offices of those responsible for the part-time administration of the village were located in an abandoned primary school.
"The most important, and the most difficult thing, was not telling the government that a village needs money, it was deciding how to spend the money on the right things," he continued.
Since then, he has helped Chenxiaozhai secure millions of yuan from the government to improve infrastructure, and he says that there are now paved roads leading to every household.
Liu found that he was responsible for the well-being of many more than just those 112 villagers on the poverty list. The villagers each had fields of about one mu, or 667 square meters, in size, and he realized that people would never be able to make a decent living from them.
With support from the local government and through the efforts of his colleagues in the village, Liu was able to introduce the practice of land transfer in 2018.
Land transfer is a form of collectivization, albeit on a smaller scale. By bundling small plots together, it is possible to create an economy of scale.
So far, over 200 hectares, or half the total agricultural land in the village, have been transferred to Niu Chaojun, a major sweet potato producer.
Niu pays 600 yuan to the villagers for the use of each mu and pays the village committee an additional 50 yuan per mu in management fees. The committee then invests a certain amount of that money in Niu's business and receives dividends, which it distributes through a fund as collective income for the villagers.
In a previous interview with China Daily last year, Niu said that he earns a net income of over 6 million yuan from the large-scale plantation, even after paying dozens of villagers to work the land.
Liu said he also helped Niu apply for all kinds of government subsidies and persuaded the government to invest more in infrastructure to benefit Niu's business and the villagers.
As China is shifting the focus of rural development from poverty relief to rural vitalization, Liu said large-scale plantations such as this will have a brighter future than the small, individual plots of traditional household farming.
According to the provincial office of poverty relief, thanks to the efforts of tens of thousands of officials like Liu, Anhui was able to lift 4.84 million people and 3,000 villages out of poverty by the end of last year.
Officials are also expected to help improve administration in the villages, another key goal of the initiative and one that has proved to be especially necessary since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
With more than 30 years of experience working with city authorities, Liu had a better understanding of the government's epidemic prevention and control measures and so was able to help village officials properly carry out the requirements.
"As a matter of fact, whenever we have difficulties now, the first person who comes to mind is Liu," said Chen Ping, Party secretary of Chenxiaozhai.
In January last year, when Hubei provincial capital, Wuhan, was in lockdown and people elsewhere in the country were staying home out of safety concerns, the Lyuzhai township hospital, which is responsible for the health of Chenxiaozhai villagers, called Liu for face masks.
He received the call in the morning and worked hard to get over 1,000 surgical masks. That afternoon, he took them to Lyuzhai in person. He then volunteered to stay with the villagers, many of whom had recently returned from all over the country for the Spring Festival.
"With me there, the villagers were less nervous and were more willing to cooperate with medical workers," Liu said.
His work in Chenxiaozhai was expected to end in April 2020, but he extended his stay to the end of this month to oversee the transition.
"The delay gives me more time to stay with the villagers and my colleagues," said Liu, adding that eventually he will have to leave to take up new responsibilities.