By Benjamin Cost
After three fruitful years of political involvement, Bai Yitong, China’s youngest village chief and the leader of Gaojie village in Shanxii, could possibly resign before the upcoming 2012 election. This move would mark a surprising turning point in the saga of such a promising politician who at just 18 years old in 2009, carved out her niche in the male-dominated world of Chinese politics, becoming an inspiration not only for her villagers, but for Chinese women everywhere.
Less than three years ago in 2009, an ambitious, moon-faced prodigy with enormous harry-potter-esque spectacles became Gaojie’s village chief, walloping the opposition with a staggering 450 out of 461 votes in her favor. The villagers saw Yitong as incorruptable due to her wealthy family background (she did not need money despite making a measley 30,000 yuan a year as village head) and as an altruistic soul who would dedicate herself to the village’s economic and social improvement.
And she didn’t disappoint.
In three years, Yitong bettered her community more than most politicians do during their entire careers. Under her financial guidance, the village’s struggling jujube-based economy saw a one million investment in road construction to help facilitate the movement of the precious commodity, along with a 500,000 yuan donation to the jujube processing plants. Proving that she was no armchair politician, Yitong even joined her villagers in constructing a 48-kilometer road and 12 jujube baking barns.
A harbinger of positive modernization, the young Yitong also revamped Gaojie village’s Ming dynasty theater stage, demonstrating that although the village’s population was quite sparce (only 1,227 residents), it would always have both entertainment and its heritage.
But arguably Yitong’s greatest accomplishment was breaking the gender glass ceiling in a province where gender inequality ranks among China’s worst. The young chief was forced to endure many misogynistic comments like the following made by the village’s accountant; “As a woman, she is soft. In the countryside, a bit more strength is necessary. Soft is not good.” Nonetheless, the confident Yang countered such remarks and won the older-villager’s trust by working alongside them, building roads and greenhouses, and demonstrating she was not “soft.”
Now, where has the confidence gone? Has Yitong actually become soft? A sharp-eyed young dynamo who less than a year ago stated that her dream was to take part in the National People’s Congress, that she was more ready than ever for the 2012 re-election is now and that she wanted to better the countryside is now saying, “before, I did not know that the countryside was so complicated. I also didn’t know what the countryside was really like. It is not as easy of a job as I had thought.” “It is full of difficulties.”
When asked about her feelings on standing down, Yitong explained,”Sometimes I really don’t want to. The villagers tell me that if I go, they are not going to vote, they don’t want anyone else. Sometimes, I… actually they make me want to continue, but things here are so complicated. It’s a hard decision.”
Could this be a tragic conclusion to such a hopeful narrative?