China’s first foreign grass-roots govt representative faces challenges as village consultant

By Xie Wenting Source:Global Times Published: 2016-3-11 5:03:03

An overview of Gongmeng village in Zhejiang Province Photo: CFP

Frenchman Emmanuel Denis receives an appointment letter from Gan Yunya, the director of Hehong's village committee. Photo: Courtesy of Chen Weirong 

On February 29, Frenchman Emmanuel Denis, also known by his Chinese name Ding Yimu, made history by becoming a consultant for Hehong village committee in East China's Zhejiang Province. It was the first time that an official appointment letter for a position at a village-level political organ was handed to a foreign citizen.

Denis, a tall and bespectacled man, received the appointment letter in a room full of curious gazes from Gan Yunya, the director of Hehong's village committee. 

"I think this [becoming a village consultant] is a meaningful task. But at the same time, I know it can be a tough one," Denis, 53, told the Global Times.

After it became known that Denis was to become the first foreign village consultant in China, some netizens questioned his motives. "I don't understand this. I'm mad about it. Why do they think people need to have a special motive for doing something good? It's a simple thing, but they make it complicated," said Denis. 

Beginnings in business

After obtaining his MBA degree in the US, Denis devoted himself to the financial industry and made his fortune in Wall Street.

He met his Chinese wife Sun Ningchu while working in the US, and the couple came to China to set up their own business in Sun's hometown of Ninghai in Zhejiang Province back in 1996.

Denis and Sun opened a successful stationery and household electrical appliances company in Ninghai. 

About a decade ago, Denis and his wife founded an education foundation, providing financial aid to local schools and students. It was through this charity that he got to know Chen Weirong, secretary of Meilin Sub-district Office in Ninghai, who later recommended Denis to Hehong village.

Denis said he was more than pleased when Chen offered him the opportunity to become a village consultant. He was asked to use his resources to introduce the village to the world.

"Denis has great passion for both Chinese and foreign cultures. He knows the Chinese situation and is willing to make a contribution. That's why I recommended him," Chen told the Global Times.

In order to prevent the post of village consultant from being a mere title with no practical effect, the village committee decided to give him an official appointment letter.

The appointment letter stipulated that Denis should participate in discussions about important village events and put forward proposals for the village's development. However, he doesn't have the right to vote.

Hehong village is a "longevity village," where some families have five generations living under one roof. Denis has traveled there twice and is impressed by its environment.

The village also has a college-graduate village official, who speaks fluent English. The official helps translate Denis' words when he can not clearly express his opinions in Chinese. "These things attract me," he said.

Denis doesn't yet know how long his tenure will be. He is required to attend the village meeting once a week.

"But each year I have to go overseas for four to five months, which makes it hard to meet the requirements," he said. "But I will try to participate in village affairs by telephone when I'm away." 

Under the spotlight

Denis has already gotten stuck into his duties. He first proposed overhauling the village's toilets, revamping the messy telegraph posts in the village and changing the electricity lines underground. 

"But this costs too much and we can't afford it. We explained this to him and he understood," Chen said.

Now Denis is thinking about another proposal related to the protection of the village's old architecture.

"There are many beautiful courtyards in the village, which carry its history and should be preserved," he said.

In Paris, some areas have a rule stipulating that the exterior walls of old houses cannot be touched and that decorations can only be done inside the house. Denis is thinking about developing a similar rule.

"I still lack knowledge of China's villages and there is a gap between Chinese and Westerners in terms of culture and concepts. These pose obstacles for my future job," he noted.

In Western countries, there isn't a big gap between villages and cities. People don't think of villages as poor places that are inferior to cities. In China, things are different. Many villages are mired in poverty and they have many developmental problems that are difficult to address, he added.

Denis admitted that because he is a foreigner, he receives more attention than he is comfortable with.

"It's just the beginning. I've not made any achievements yet. To have such a high profile is not good," he said. "In the West, it's only when I've done many things and changed something or I have made examples for other villages as a reference that I could have such attention."

In order to avoid publicity, Denis recently went on vacation with his wife in Australia after a large number of reporters flooded the village to interview him a week ago.

Along with the publicity has come skepticism. Some people said that he must have a secret selfish motive for doing this. "Even the Wall Street financial elite wants to become a village official. Imagine how much money a corrupt village official can get," read one comment.

"My friend once told me that in China, if you want to do something, it's hard. Through this thing, I felt it," Denis said. 

While perplexed by this situation, Denis maintains his enthusiasm for bringing new life to the village.

Chen said that he and Denis are now also considering building more tourist facilities in the village, in order to attract visitors and boost the village's development.
Newspaper headline: Expat official

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