My name is Max Wu, and I am a rising sophomore. Due to COVID-19’s international border restrictions, I decided that it would be more worthwhile for me to take a year-long leave of absence to do something productive rather than proceed with online classes. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to reach out to the head director and host of Shanghai Media Group, Chen Rong, pertaining to a documentary program under Dragon Television called “We Are In Action” (direct translation). The program first caught my interest in 2018 when I interviewed Rong through a Dragon Television internship about her newly devised methods of poverty alleviation. Now, I had the opportunity to participate in them. Created by Shanghai Media Group (SMG) under Dragon Television Channel, “We Are In Action” is China’s first non-profit strategic poverty alleviation and public welfare assistance documentary program. It seeks to eradicate poverty by introducing new e-commerce and marketing models.
For the past few months and the next foreseeable year, I have worked and will continue to work with this documentary program. As the only intern, my job covers a large field. I work with the production crew on writing scripts for starring actors (usually volunteer celebrities and Chen Rong herself), choosing scenes to film, deciding which local villagers to include on film and selecting specific local stories relating to the theme of poverty. At the same time, I travel to impoverished households to interview locals and analyze which locations are viable for filming with the show’s director and camera crew. As an added bonus, I’m an assistant to Chen Rong. I do research for her on locally produced goods and specialty products that could potentially be sold on the domestic market to provide a steady source of income for impoverished households. In my spare time, I try to journal my experiences with every impoverished community I visit, in order to share my insights with my peers.
Out of the six communities below the poverty line I’ve traveled to so far, Wuchuan County in Inner Mongolia was one that left the deepest impression on me. Wuchuan County is located in the middle of Inner Mongolia (an autonomous region in China), north of the capital Hohhot City, with a total area of 4,885 square kilometres. Wuchuan’s total population at the end of 2018 was 171,100. In China, a county usually consists of a main town—in this case “Wucuan”—and several smaller villages in the nearby vicinity. Never have I seen a collection of villages so dilapidated and loosely intertwined as those in Wuchuan County. The main town extended only six blocks in length and ten blocks in width, and consisted of mostly short buildings with half-tattered roofs.
The hotel our production crew lodged in was undoubtedly the highest and most well-built structure in town. For almost every day of my 15-day journey to Inner Mongolia, there was some kind of grand wedding being held in the ballroom right next to the dining hall at our hotel. Because the ballroom was relatively small and sat awkwardly in between two dining halls, I had to trespass into a different wedding for every meal. According to the front desk, only the “wealthiest” households of Wuchuan County could hold their weddings at this venue, and the 5,000 RMB (roughly $750) all inclusive fee was considered a once-in-a-lifetime luxury. As I ate my pre-made lunchbox meals with over 50 crew members sitting across from the newly wedded couple’s friends and family, I felt an immeasurable amount of privilege. Back in Shanghai, most weddings afforded couples and their guests with enough privacy for the intimate occasion. But here in Wuchuan, this was all that was available: a ballroom with less than ten tables, a buffet with three hot and cold dishes and an old carpet for the bride to walk on.
The view from my 10-square meter room was far from spectacular. There was nothing reminiscent of the great luscious grass plains of Hulunbuir and Baotou up north. I saw fields of dying yellow buckwheat and tall dry grass extending endlessly into the far distance, along with rows of makeshift construction ground housing for most of the town residents. After work, I would usually stroll along the streets at twilight to observe the living conditions and habits of locals. Due to high latitudes, the sun in Wuchuan sets much earlier than in southern China, and many stores would call it a day around 5 p.m. By 7:30 p.m., the only venues that were open in Wuchuan were the restaurants and public bathhouses, which charged 5 RMB (approximately $0.75) per one time entrance. By 9 p.m., everything closed. Dead silence filled the cold empty streets, disrupted from time to time only by an occasional stray cat cry or drunk person walking home under the half-lit street lamps. Unlike other communities below the poverty line, Wuchuan was not only deeply impoverished but also extremely unpicturesque, not to mention the other severe problems it had. According to a local food truck owner named Fu Gui, who travels between Hohhot City and Wuchuan, China’s yellow rat plague had begun to manifest within areas of Inner Mongolia and sanitation had become a top priority. Ironically, COVID-19 was the least of their worries. “The plague will almost certainly kill you! Your nails will blacken and your flesh will rot. COVID-19 is child’s play compared to this,” Gui would often say. He would always wish me good luck as I finished the last bites of my breakfast and prepared for a full day of interviews with impoverished households.
The night time in Wuchuan was harsh and unforgiving, but daylight brought forth an oddly nourishing strong summer sun beam that lit the broken streets. A brisk autumn breeze blew by as locals returned to their small family businesses to welcome a new day. I, along with the rest of the production crew, arrived in Wuchuan on Aug. 24 with an already well-devised agenda. My tasks, schedules and accommodation details throughout the 15-day journey had been planned by subsidiary scout groups that SMG sent ten days prior to our arrival. Even in Wuchuan, I was able to experience a kind of privilege only a large organization such as SMG could provide. Now that the logistics were settled, I made myself comfortable in my miniscule but cozy hotel room.
The arrival day was never hectic. It’s perhaps the only day where no work was required; a day where I was able to unwind from the three hour flight from Shanghai, the one hour car ride from Hohhot City and the 45 minute walk to find a local Wuchuan cab to the hotel. As I lay on the small single bed overlooking the lifeless grass fields of Wuchuan County, I decided to map out the routes for the following days. The plan for the next few days was simple: move into nearby villages to interview impoverished households and conduct searches for viable filming locations.
The chaotic layout of Wuchuan county made mapping nearly impossible. There was only one main road connecting Wuchuan with Hohhot City, and the surrounding villages were scattered through rough terrain with improper road systems failing to interconnect them. The nearest village, which was only six kilometers away, would take us 45 minutes to venture to because the off road was so dangerous and unpredictable. Often surrounded by swampy marsh pits during the rainy season, these villages became isolated from the rest of Wuchuan, and journey by car became nearly impossible. Troubled and frustrated at Wuchuan’s harsh geography, I took a long afternoon nap to clear my mind and pass the time while waiting for the usual post-dinner debrief meetings “We Are In Action” mandates. On the first night, I overheard my roommate talking on the phone about one of our studio minivans that needed to be forcibly pulled out of the mud swamps by emergency service trucks. The prolonged cold climates and lack of natural resources also meant there were less industrial foundations, giving locals no choice but to work in agriculture. But after doing some research, I discovered that the registered poor households in Wuchuan County have already decreased by at least 6,064 households from 2014. On April 18, 2019, China had officially declared Wuchuan County “pulled” out of poverty, but this was not as simple as it sounds. Turns out, President Xi’s “Targeted Poverty Alleviation” strategy encourages local governments to keep track of every individual household’s progress to ensure that they receive an annual income of 2,300 RMB or more. The problem was that this amount was not nearly enough to promote sustainable development in small, dilapidated villages.
By Aug. 25, the job had started. Waking up at 6 a.m. would eventually transition into a normal habit, but on the second morning I was desperately tired upon seeing the early morning sunrise. I met my soon-to-be colleagues downstairs, in the same dining hall where we had dinner and town couples got married, for a quick breakfast before heading out to Zhengxingyuan village for a local tour. The village was something out of the ordinary. Wuchuan town might have looked run-down and tattered, but Zhengxingyuan village gave me the impression of a completely desolate ghost town. The crumbling dirt path led us into the main village hall, which was protected by dirt walls and outdated Chinese propaganda slogans. The hall itself was made out of a layered tin foil-like material supported on the side with crackling concrete. In the middle of the village hall, there was a flagpole with the classic five yellow stars of China at one corner. Next to the main building stood a mud structured bathroom with holes on the floor that led directly to a large fertilizer pit. Outside the village hall, the Zhengxingyuan village itself spanned 23 square kilometers with nine so-called neighborhoods; it was the biggest out of the eight villages under Wuchuan jurisdiction. A dirt path led from the main building into the far distance where each neighborhood—small clusters of mudhut buildings attached to patches of farmland behind—sat. Each household had a large iron fence barring the entrance to its main lawn and a small space inside for livestock. Yet out of the nine neighborhoods, only four of them were occupied. The younger generations from Zhengxingyuan have migrated to larger urban areas for better employment or education opportunities, leaving the elders to tend to family farms alone. As I toured around, I saw the remnants of a village with shattered hopeless dreams, and a few elder people buried in tragedy and emptiness.
Despite being a dismal place to live, the Zhengxingyuan village was well-suited to “We Are In Action’s” documentation purposes. It had all the elements needed to convey the ruinous story of local poverty. According to county officials, out of the permanent 188 households that reside in Zhengxingyuan, there are more than 138 low-income households containing more than 47 incapacitated people unable to work. These low-income families have just recently been lifted out of poverty, and yet their income is barely enough to sustain their families’ needs. Hence, the threat of relapsing back into a vicious cycle of poverty still haunts villagers. The naturally harsh climates meant that agricultural production was not only inefficient but also costly, creating more stress for the aging population. As a result of COVID-19, the four neighborhoods I visited and their inhabitants experienced a total 50 to 70 percent reduction in production and decrease in income over the course of 2020. All of this is compounded by the fact that the village and its people are neglected beyond measure, demotivating the existing working population to create income: the elders see no point in spending their retirement days working on infertile land while high costs prevent them from producing altogether—not to mention the physical insufficiency of housing, public infrastructure and roads within the village. From the outside, Zhengxingyuan truly looked like a battered village with no hopes of recovering, and that’s what production crew was searching for.
The mornings in Wuchuan always passed swiftly. The cool and dewy atmosphere of dawn quickly gave way to the sweltering heat of midday. 12:30 p.m. was the unofficial but well acknowledged lunch time for us hungry workers who had spent the morning either scouting or partaking in crew meetings for the upcoming documentary. Most of the time, I would eat the five RMB-prepped lunchbox meals with my colleagues while standing anywhere that provided cover from the scorching Mongolian weather. Sometimes, I would eat alone under the shade of a canopy tree or inside the minivans, because it was the only time of the day I had to myself. The rest required interaction with colleagues: It is customary for Chinese workers to socialize with each other on the job, so small talk became expected throughout my day. But on day two, I decided to eat by myself while doing a little unsanctioned touring of Zhengxingyuan alone. I carried the meal in one hand while juggling a pair of cheap wooden chopsticks in the other, walking towards the fields behind the mudhuts. From a distance, my poor eyesight found no fault at the sight of the seemingly blooming vegetation, but as I got closer to the fields, it became clear that the patchy farmlands were filled with withering crops. Rows of sunflowers were collapsing on the crackling dirt ground, and those that were standing were hanging on to their last bits of life. Rotting potato plants piled up in a mush over on the corners of a farmer’s land, waiting to be disposed of or used as fertilizer. The only crop that looked “alive” was on the grainfield, but that was only because a billion dollar Shanghai-based agriculture corporation had bought the oat plants several years prior. It’s a sad scenario for any household, and I felt utterly powerless to help. Surely, what could’ve been done already has been. So what was our role? What was mine? While walking back to the main neighborhood, where the production crew was interviewing private households, I thought about these questions, hoping to find some kind of answer.
It was decided that Zhengxingyuan would be the location we filmed. There was no more time to further contemplate or scout any more villages. By day six, I had already traveled to the remaining seven villages, the farthest being 32 kilometers from the main Wuchuan town. Zhengxingyuan’s attributes were perfect for a documentary depicting the hardship of impoverishment. Director Rong even said, “Everything about this village screams rundown and poor; this is what the show needs: a representation of poverty.” But the decision process did not come easily. For the past five days, my nights had been filled with board discussions and director Rong’s endless stream of meetings. As an intern, my job was to assist Chen Rong in doing research and provisioning logistics for every village: what kind of specialty crops grew, whether or not villagers were particularly sociable, whether the environment was suitable, etc. I knew that deep down, director Rong had always favored documenting Zhengxingyuan over the other villages, but making that decision among an indecisive crew made it that much harder.
The real final push was Ulan Muqi. Established in 1957, Ulan Muqi was originally a propaganda organization in Inner Mongolia that publicized the policies and activities of the Chinese Communist Party, but more recently it has become a humanitarian cultural organization dedicated to the preservation of Mongolian customs and traditions. Ulan Muqi would have its members travel around Inner Mongolia to provide free public services such as medical treatment and equipment repairs. In addition, Ulan Muqi’s members also train to perform nearly 7,000 cultural shows in poverty stricken areas annually. By some coincidence, Ulan Muqi was scheduled to perform in Wuchuan County’s very own Zhengxingyuan village, and it was the perfect opportunity for a collaboration. In a way, I felt like this project really revolved around Ulan Muqi’s presence. Ulan Muqi was more than a symbol of Mongolian tradition; it was the spirit of the local people. It felt like something that the world needed to see.
I spent the next few days living a quarantine-style life, alongside my production crew, trying to think of ways that “We Are In Action” could collaborate with Ulan Muqi. Their time was limited, and we needed to think fast. For days on end, I would migrate back and forth between my room on the 8th floor and the meeting room on the 15th floor, which was set up as a temporary SMG office. I wrote multiple revisions of documentary scripts for Chen Rong, who stars in “We Are In Action,” and her guests, most of whom are volunteering celebrities. I thought about using the village hall as the opening scene, as it was a great common ground area for “We Are In Action” to officially meet Ulan Muqi on camera. The starring vocal band Phoenix Legend, pop singer Li Wenhan and actor Yi Liyuan, along with Rong, would from there on “join” Ulan Muqi members on their quest to help locals. Together they would travel to individual households in Zhengxingyuan. “We Are In Action” would follow Ulan Muqi as they interacted with local villagers,, listening to their tragic stories and participating in the daily life of impoverished farmers. Meanwhile, “We Are In Action” would devise a poverty alleviation model through cultural public welfare assistance and online corporate marketing of local specialty products. It was a simple but effective way to collaborate with Ulan Muqi while filming all the content needed for a documentary. Turns out, even Rong approved of my premature plans for the upcoming collaboration, and my agenda was sent for revision.
The day was approaching. On Sept. 4, the cameras would start rolling on set scenes and events, and we were nowhere near close to finishing logistics and show planning. On Sept. 1, I had just finished my morning instant coffee, and was feeling more miserable by the minute. It had been at least two to three days since I last stepped foot outside the hotel, and I was beginning to lose track of time. I had initially grown weary of scouting villages one by one for a whole week, but being stuck inside with a seemingly insurmountable pile of work was indefinitely worse. Time was ticking, and I needed to submit a detailed agenda for the few days ahead, provisions for scenes we were planning to shoot and the script for starring actors. To save time, I often chose the lunchbox meal option over the dining hall, so boxes of cardboard styrofoam and bamboo chopsticks would end up piling in one corner of my room. Because cleaning services were suspended during COVID-19, my room smelled like fermented beans and sweat. I desperately needed to take a walk around town to clear my head from the mental and literal debris stuck in my little room. I walked out just as the sun was about to set on Wuchuan town’s horizon, and the half-circular golden speck in the far distance greeted me with its soft embrace. The only venues open at 5 pm were the local convenience stores and the “yyexxiao” or “midnight snack” store. I jogged down five blocks onto the main square to find a better view of the gradually dimming town. In one direction stood my hotel, towering over the town like a skyscraper overlooking the lower surrounding buildings, and and in the other direction stood a pile of old tattered concrete houses and an oat factory. In the middle, there was a large road separating the two contrasting structures. The oat factory in Wuchuan is owned by a Shanghai-based agriculture company——a billion dollar capitalist corporation that depended on cheap and underpaid Wuchuan labor for its profit. Opposite of it was the worn-down housing. It was a literal representation of an unprecedented wealth gap.
After another late night of paperwork indoors, we were finally able to return to Zhengxingyuan village. This time, I needed to find a story—— a story so emotionally resonant that “We Are In Action” could speak to the world on behalf of low-income households. By 2 pm, I had already interviewed 30 households,, but none of them seemed too enthusiastic about making their voices heard. For them, it wasn’t easy confessing the stories of their private life to a media organization, and I completely empathized with their concerns. For the remainder of the day, I followed the film crew into at least 50 to 100 different individual households. We had to split up into teams of five people per house just to finish all the interviews. Each interviewed household professed their tragedies, their stories and their dreams of one day reuniting with their families who have migrated to urban areas. Despite living among tragedy, local villagers keep their spirits and hopes for their future alive. Perhaps it’s the spirit that motivates them to thrive that, in turn, motivates us all.
I was one of the so-called “journalists” in my small group. While others would collect data on household production and income, we kept busy interviewing members of the family about their personal experiences with poverty. I found myself interviewing individual household members when the film crew was preoccupied with other extensive tasks, and there was one interaction that has weighed on me the most. It was with a frail old lady by the name of Wang Hairong. Thirteen years ago, Wang Hairong’s husband and eldest daughter passed away in a car accident, which left her to bear the cost of single-handedly raising her remaining children. After having saved just enough money to send her granddaughter off to university, her son became incapacitated in another gruesome car accident this May. As harvest season approached and winter dawned on Grandma Wang Hairong’s withered lawn, she was more than desperate for assistance. Her family had lost their only source of income, her granddaughter is facing a loan-heavy future, and her ability to work was dwindling. Wang Hairong’s story astonished me not only because of the consecutive tragedies she experienced, but rather that she has adapted to coping with these horrific events. I saw pain in her eyes, and I quivered at the sound and sight of her hardship. Her day-to-day reality could not be more different from the carefree lifestyle we lived back at home. While she slept alone under a bamboo-made roof on a stormy day with three broken windows, no lighting, and an outhouse outside in the farm fields, we were most probably slouching in the comforts of our homes. After multiple discussions and briefings on which households to film, I managed to convince Rong to document Wang Hairong’s story and include it within the program.
I think that interviews and personal stories are the most effective way a disconnected audience can step into other people’s lives. Wang Hairong’s story enables people to truly understand what it’s like to live in a poverty line similar to Wuchuan County. In fact, when I asked Rong, she explained how personal stories are overlooked in mainstream media. People often focus on the statistics rather than the “human” part of humanitarian aid. Including stories of individual low-income households allows the documentary to take one step further and establish human connection, even through television. Of course, Wang Hairong’s story is only one of the many heartening stories I recorded. Every household had their own tales to profess.
Before we could call it a day, there were a few things that needed to be done. Our crew had to travel to the production grounds of local specialty products. These products would eventually be used in an elaborate e-commerce and company wholesale economic marketing model to eradicate poverty. SMG’s strategic poverty alleviation model is based on finding these specialty products so that locals can be given incentive to produce them, and in turn make a sustainable income. It was called the “New System.” Essentially, the production crew selects an agricultural product or livestock product that can be used as the focal point for the documentary. For every county featured in “We Are In Action,” SMG hosts a “发布会” or press conference where representatives of several local and national food manufacturing companies pre-order these local specialty products so that impoverished households can fulfill the orders and make an income. For example, a yogurt manufacturing company could pre-order 30 million RMB worth of locally produced milk. Every household in that county would then have the incentive to raise livestock and produce milk to sell to the yogurt manufacturing company and fulfill that 30 million RMB quota because it’s a guaranteed income. In short, the press conference is basically an auction for companies to pre-order wholesale farmer products. This wholesale style of poverty alleviation is what “We Are In Action” uses to help alleviate eradicate poverty. For Wuchuan County, SMG selected oats, potatoes and sunflower seeds as the main specialty products. As a result, I visited three separate farm patches to assess the current quantity of specialty produce in stock. Our crew left Zhengxingyuan at 11 p.m. that night, and I felt absolutely drained. It wasn’t easy listening to their stories, so I could only imagine the dismay of living them. When I returned to the hotel, it was already 12 a.m. I immediately collapsed on my bed, drifting off into sleep while thinking of Wang Hairong.
Tomorrow was one of those days that just didn’t feel right. I woke up nauseous, drowning in a dried puddle of my own sweat from last night’s hectic sleep. I had fallen asleep horizontally on the bed with my hiking boots still strapped tightly onto my legs. The clothes I wore yesterday were still attached to my sticky torso, and I could smell the stench of leftover meals rotting from my desk. It was nearly 11 am, but my roommate was still asleep. I jumped out of the bed as soon as I saw the time, frantically changing my attire into semi-formal. From the other bed came a loud screaming: “What are you doing? The meeting is canceled!” I took a minute to compose myself before I realized that Chen Rong had given us an unplanned rest day due to the rainy weather. Originally, the plan was to visit Zhengxingyuan one last time before filming to confirm the logistics with local village authorities. “We Are In Action” had also planned to host a charity event, offering villagers free haircuts and hair products from sponsors of SMG. But because of heavy rain and high winds, everything was canceled. That didn’t mean I was allowed to slouch around all day. I knew Rong wouldn’t let us off that easily. At 12 p.m. I received a text message from “Inner Mongolia Director’s Groupchat” on my WeChat from Rong, telling us to contact local and national companies and confirm their arrival on the 7th. SMG’s press conference and “New System” was reliant upon these companies, and she needed to make sure that all of their representatives would show up. Throughout the entire afternoon, I dialled number by number, going down the Excel sheet of phone numbers linking to various agriculture and food companies. It was the same script for every company: “Hi, is this … enterprises or company? I would like to speak to you about the scheduled press conference on the 7th… Yes, this is SMG.” It became a horrendously monotonous task, until I dialled the very oat factory I saw across from the old tattered houses. The company spokesman discussed their recent failures in attempting to cooperate with local farmers on production deals due to a logistical nightmare: not all households were willing to sign a contract deal. After hours of speaking on the phone, I offered on behalf of “We Are In Action” a chance to help both the company and the villagers cooperate.
On the final day of pre-production, the production crew finished the final revisions for the agenda, and everyone was well-informed on their roles. “We Are In Action” had a tight schedule ahead, and so did I. The cameras would start rolling the next morning and would continue for three days. On Sept. 4, the starring guests and celebrities would arrive early in the morning. They would travel around Wuchuan County and meet with Ulan Muqi. The two parties would share the cultural differences between the “Han” people and Mongolian people, and the cameras would follow them into Zhengxingyuan village. Guests were scheduled to interact with local villagers, one of them being Wang Hairong. To finish off the day, guests would help Wang Hairong harvest her remaining crops as a gesture of kindness.
On the day after, guests were scheduled to return to Zhengxingyuan in the morning to perform the traditional Mongolion “street dance” for villagers. Meanwhile, “We Are In Action” would host the rescheduled free haircut charity event. In the afternoon, “We Are In Action’s” guests and celebrities would host a live broadcast through Chinese e-commerce website “Taobao” to review local specialty goods and sell to consumers. The profit from products sold on the live stream would be directly distributed respectively among Wuchuan farmers. To finish off the night, guests would visit the Wuchuan oat factory, a Shanghai-based company, in order to secure a 15 million RMB deal. The oat factory would pre-purchase 15 million RMB worth of oats for local farmers to produce over the course of 20 years. On the final day, Sept. 7, guests would host a “happiness promotion conference,” or press conference with Ulan Muqi in Wuchuan town, where representatives of local and national food manufacturing companies pre-ordered sunflower seeds, oats, potatoes and other local specialty products so that households make a sustainable income. In celebration of Wuchuan tradition, Ulan Muqi and starring guests would perform a one-hour dance and singing show for the people who attend the press conference. The final scene would return to Wang Hairong’s house, as Ulan Muqi and “We Are In Action” worked together to alleviate her property. The camera cuts, and the project would be complete. I revised the agenda one last time before slouching in bed, getting ready for the hectic day tomorrow.
The actual process of filming did not involve us production crew workers at all; that job belonged to the camera crew. I stood by for most of the time as contingency, just in case something went wrong and needed a quick fix. Most of the time, boredom and drowsiness preoccupied me as I literally ran around Wuchuan County with the camera crew to film.
I consider my trip to Wuchuan County a great success in terms of humanitarian aid, poverty eradication and content filming for “We Are In Action’s” upcoming documentary. The eye-opening journey not only helped me realize the scope of China’s poverty situation, but also taught me to reflect on the stories of every individual impoverished household. I learned how to create development opportunities, how to help the poor create an income source, how to move towards common prosperity, how to support others in harsh conditions, how to detail large socioeconomic plans for impoverished areas—Yet most importantly, I learned how to empathize and love. Because at the end of the day, my goal aligns with “We Are In Action’s” plan: to aid and alleviate no matter what it takes. Although I was only a cog in a much larger machine working on these projects, I feel as though I’ve made a difference by voicing my opinions through experience and participation. If anything, I was at least finally able to witness it all: the hardship, the tragedy, the suffering and the stories of Daxing and Wuchuan that will forever accompany me towards a better self. I believe that only when every impoverished household has been lifted out of poverty can society then advance towards a better tomorrow. As I left Wuchuan County, the smiles of the villagers reminded me that we must always be in action.