How China's Leaders Steer a Massive Nation

Ding also wants to fight poverty in the west, not only with investments but with an idea. He is the director of a non-governmental organization and a lecturer at the University of Lanzhou. When he came to the village of Qingshuiling in 2003, he witnessed a vicious cycle. Farmers were cutting down trees for heating, cooking and to sell the wood. This leads to erosion and landslides. But the more frequently nature punishes people, the poorer they become.

Ding wanted to create a "cycle of good" instead. Under his plan, the farmers would raise cattle, which meant that they had to plant grass, and the cow dung could be converted into biogas. To start the cycle, an aid organization donated cows to the poorest people in the village. In return, they were required to give the calves to the second-poorest residents, with the next generation of calves going to the richest of the poor. Today, the farmers live in brick houses, they have more tractors, mopeds and mobile phones, and everyone has a color TV set.

But how could Ding convince the government to apply his model on a large scale? How was he to explain to officials that everything has to be viewed as part of a bigger plan, one that incorporates both cow dung and disaster management? Ding began his lobbying effort.

If there is one thing that someone hoping to get his idea put into practice needs in China, it's trust. But a certain social status is needed to build trust. "I am a professor," says Ding. "If I were nothing, the officials wouldn't listen to me." It's also helpful to have received awards and official positions, such as being a representative in a people's congress. When close to 1,500 people died in landslides in Gansu Province, Ding was invited to conferences held by the provincial government. He is also a permanent advisor to the Ministry of Science and Technology in Beijing, for which he provides expert reports. Finally, Ding is a party member. That, he says with a smile, is important in China. The Politics of 'Guanxi'

At the time, however, the first thing he needed was a "partner" in the local government. Fortunately he had a contact in the provincial government, namely the father-in-law of one of his students. He ensured that local officials would show interest in Ding's project village.

Another element of the game is called "guanxi," or the relationship between a supplicant and a sponsor or protector. Guanxi is part of Chinese culture and, therefore, Chinese politics. Having things in common with others, such as having attended the same school or university or having served in the same military unit, are the prerequisite for the development of guanxi.

Ding once served in the provincial government for four years, where he worked in a poverty reduction program. His former coworkers put him in touch with their supervisors. It was also helpful that Ding had traveled through Europe with officials for the purpose of "group brainstorming." The most important thing of all, however, is that Ding will be participating in a research project at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in the future, which will involve frequent flights to the capital. "If you have guanxi," says Ding, "you have to spend less time on lobbying efforts."

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