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Chinese grads ‘Go West’ to serve in provinces

The Chinese government's "Go West" program encourages new graduates to pledge one or two years to causes in underdeveloped regions of the country.
Dr. Liu Yonggang, 25, a graduate in traditional Chinese medicine, removes suction cups from the back of a Uighur patient in the small Xinjiang clinic where he has volunteered for the last year.
Dr. Liu Yonggang, 25, a graduate in traditional Chinese medicine, removes suction cups from the back of a Uighur patient in the small Xinjiang clinic where he has volunteered for the last year.Edward Cody / Washington Post
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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.

Easy fit
The program reflects a long-standing party doctrine encouraging students to take their learning 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.

"My year here has given me a much deeper understanding of this part of China," said Wang, 25.

The drawback, he acknowledged, is that conservative local traditions have made it difficult to find a girlfriend. "Around here, if you have a girlfriend, it is to get married," he said with an embarrassed smile. With only $80 a month in living expenses, night life has been pretty limited anyway, he added.

‘I could use three or four of them’
Wang's colleagues at Korla No. 4 Middle School said his work there has been a big help because they did not have anyone to offer psychological guidance to students or to prepare teachers to deal with problem children. The school has about 5,000 students, a fifth of whom come from surrounding communities and live in dormitories and a number of whom come from broken homes, according to Xu Hong, a 21-year teaching veteran and secretary of the school party committee.

"We like people like him to come here," said the school director, Wu Luliang. "They bring a new perspective. I could use three or four of them."

Liu said he has found satisfaction in introducing the village to traditional Chinese medicine, which he said was poorly known until his arrival. The experience he has amassed here over one year, he said, would have taken much longer to gain in Shandong province, where he went to school, or in a large city such as Beijing. He figures that what he has learned will serve him well when he leaves Xinjiang and looks for a permanent job.

Han Bing, a nursing graduate who helps staff a clinic in the nearby village of Halayu, said she has been giving patients injections for months now, also acquiring experience ahead of her classmates back home. The problem, she said, is that nursing jobs are scarce in Shandong, casting a shadow over the future once her time in Xinjiang ends.

"There are just too many nurses in China," she said.

Jing Xixiang, 23, a medical school graduate who like Han was assigned to help at the Halayu clinic, said the prospect of life as a salaried doctor also has him thinking. Despite his studies, he said, he might renounce a career in medicine.

"I might go into business," he added. "I also have to think about money."