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China's Youngest Village Chief Unsure About Another Term

Bai Yitong, China's youngest village chief.
Bai Yitong, China's youngest village chief.

Bai Yitong is China's youngest village chief, but not its least experienced.

After three years involved in the politics of a small, rural town, she has tried to dispel doubts about her age, her city upbringing and her leadership abilities as a female in a province where the gender imbalance is one of China's worst.

Gaojie looks like thousands of other villages scattered across China's countryside. What makes it stand out is its leader, 21-year-old Bai Yitong, the country's youngest village chief, who was elected in 2009.

Bai did not grow up in Gaojie, although her father did. She says she came to the village because she wanted to help it develop. Now, she says, she thinks she was dreaming.

"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," she said. "It is full of difficulties."

Bai spoke to VOA in Yulin City, several hours drive away from Gaojie. She grew up in Yulin, and spends part of her time there, at home, studying.

Back in the village, local officials unlock the door to Bai's office and talk about how she has done so far.

Gaojie's deputy Communist Party secretary, Bai Jiening, says nearly half of the more than 1,000 villagers chose Bai over the other candidates, after four rounds of elections.

"Bai Yitong was more energetic and more inspirational. She was pretty pure and did not seem like one of those corrupt chiefs that we used to have in the countryside," explained Bai. "She was honest and sincere. She was young, which was a good thing and a bad thing.”

The village's accountant, Bai Qingfan, says Bai lacked experience. He calls her “little sister” and says he thinks being a female is a handicap for her.

"As a woman, she is soft. In the countryside, a bit more strength is necessary. Soft is not good,” he said.

Bai's accomplishments include renovating roads, building greenhouses, setting up a date-processing plant and rebuilding an old theater - all with the help of family connections and money. Villager Bai Zhengwen says she has been a pretty good chief.

"When she came here, she was like a doll - only 19 years old and no work experience in the countryside," Bai stated. "But, eventually, people accepted her.”

The village is holding its next round of elections for chief later this year. Bai says she is sometimes torn about whether she wants to stand for another three-year term.

"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," she said. "It's a hard decision."

Bai's life these days is dominated by village troubles, even as she nurses aspirations for a college degree. She wants what is best for the villagers, but she also wants to figure out what is best for her too.