Idle ex-village chief rediscovers value of work

After losing his position as village chief in a remote area of the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, Memettursun Nurdun slipped into a life of idleness, happy to eat sunflower seeds and watch others get ahead in life.

However, three months ago the 38-year-old took on a job as a carpenter when he realized he was the only unemployed person left in Tuwan Taghwaz village, Sagan, Yengisar county.

"I just got used to doing nothing," he said.

The village, located beside the Taklimakan, China's largest desert, has scant arable land. More than half the 313 families in the village are classified as poor.

In 2005, Memettursun, the only person in the village to have attended junior high school, was elected village chief. At that time, there was little farm work to keep the younger generation occupied, so they hung around the village, chatting or playing cards to kill time.

Memettursun felt duty-bound to persuade them to improve their lives, but with limited options, his suggestions often fell on deaf ears.

"At that time the most lucrative opportunity was cotton picking in fall," he said. "It was difficult to find stable work."

At the last village election, Memettursun was voted out of office and had to go back to supporting his family on the less-than 10,000 yuan a year he earned from his family plot. His wife suggested that he look for a job in the local town, but he refused, saying, "I used to be a leader, so how can I be led by other people?"

He tried his hand at a few jobs, but ultimately came to the conclusion that it was all right for him not to work. His family was cushioned by the central government's poverty reduction measures, his children attended free schools, and hospital fees were all but covered by medical insurance.

In the end he simply stayed at home, leading a life that he had previously tried to talk other people out of. "With a bunch of sunflower seeds in my hand, I could get through the day," he said.

His life was "pressure free" for three years, Memettursun said, "as if I had pressed pause on my life". Around him, however, other people's lives had changed.

Thanks to the goal of eradicating absolute poverty in 2020, the poor of Xinjiang have benefited from policies that reach into every corner of their lives-from industries and employment to relocation. The policies have resulted in more employment opportunities and stable incomes.

Everyone in Tuwan Taghwaz was improving their lot, except the former village chief.

Township government officials even visited Memettursun to encourage him to get a job, but he said he couldn't because he was his mother's sole carer.

While some villagers could afford smartphones and motorbikes, others returned to Tuwan Taghwaz and opened workshops and factories. In 2015, a furniture factory opened just 10 minutes' walk from Memettursun's home and his wife took a job there.

Suddenly, there was no one around to chat with. Everyone was at work. At last Memettursun listened to his long-suffering wife and approached the furniture factory. As a carpenter, he now earns 2,000 yuan ($280) a month.

An estimated 645,000 people in Xinjiang shook off poverty last year. By the end of this year, the region's remaining 42,000 poor households are expected to be taken off the impoverished list.

"Work is easier to find now than a decade ago. As long as you want to work, you can make money, and life will get better," Memettursun said.