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China's Countryside is the New Destination for Student Study Programs

Anya Jia

· Asia,Education,Community Assistance,Social Entrep

China has experienced the world’s fastest economic growth over the past 30 years with growth rates averaging at 10% per year. As a result of this rapid economic development, there is a widening of the income gap between rural and urban households.

According to data released by the National Bureau of Statistics of China, the population of mainland China almost reached 1.4 billion by the end of 2016. Rural population was 589.73 million, accounting for almost half of the total number.

In 2016, the disposable income per capita of urban households in China was at 33,616 Yuan, while in the rural areas, it was only 12,363 Yuan. The income discrepancy built up an invisible barrier between the city and the countryside, restricting the direct communication between urban residents and rural residents. Under such circumstances, prejudice from urban residents toward rural areas arose. The lack of communication also limited the sales channel of goods and services from the rural areas.

With an urgent need to break this barrier, showing urban residents the real picture of the countryside, and promoting economic development in the rural areas, Xingyu Wang built his social enterprise Beyond the City.

How it Began

Xingyu Wang in Xiangxi

Xingyu Wang spent his early childhood in the Shanghai suburbs with his grandparents. His childhood memory was filled with the aroma of fresh fruits, and the beautiful scenery of green fields. Since then, Xingyu has felt a strong connection to the rural areas.

When he grew up, he visited many cities in different countries and acquired a master's degree in international relations at New York University. During those years abroad, one of the most common questions he gets is 'What is China like?'. All he can think of is the impression of urban areas and some vague childhood memories. He knew those do not paint the whole picture of China.

To find the answer to that most commonly asked question, Xingyu went back to China to see what the real Chinese countryside looked like. He discovered that the genuine countryside is very different from the prevailing stereotype. He was amazed by the unseen culture.

Xingyu later joined a public organization and participated in an anti-poverty project in Xiangxi in the Hunan province, helping local farmers sell their agriculture products through e-commerce. Later, he found that this project is not sustainable as volunteers are not bonding with the locals in the village so when people leave, the sales channel leaves with them.

Xingyu decided to take a different approach. He founded Beyond the City, a social enterprise that uses education to build a bridge between urban and rural areas. Unlike many other rural nonprofit organizations, Beyond the City is not a voluntary teaching program. The founders came up with an innovative concept, which is a rural study program that aims to bring urban children to study and experience culture and history in the countryside.

It didn’t take too long for Xingyu to find cooperative partners who share a common goal and vision. The first challenge Xingyu and his team encountered was to locate villages as many of them are not easy to track on the GPS. They had to spend days and weeks to reach each destination. Another challenge was to select the right villages. They were looking for communities that would stir teenagers’ interests and inspire them. The qualifications included villages with distinct stories and unique cultures, good housing conditions, and guaranteed safety. In phase one, they visited 20 villages and found 4 qualified communities.

Co-founders of Beyond the City, Xingyu Wang, Weihua Huang, and Yifei Jin

Beyond the City only recruited 27 students for their first trip. The initial marketing was very difficult. Beyond the City is the very first organization that brings students to study in the rural areas. Many parents and students questioned the usefulness and safety of a rural study program. Luckily, more and more people started to learn about them and became interested after they got covered by over 30 media outlets. At present, they receive over a hundred applicants for each trip.

How Beyond the City works

The mission of Beyond the City is to offer Chinese students a fresh perspective about their own country through education. Their rural study program operates similarly to other existing summer study abroad programs. Teenagers are brought to different villages in China during their summer vacation. Beyond the City has an innovative curriculum setting which consists of learning, touring, and practicing.

During its recent trip to a village in Heze which is famous for its local opera, students learned the history of the opera, practiced opera singing, and visited the local opera house. Such curriculum setting allows students to see the comprehensive picture of the village and promote the bonding between the students and the locals.

Student practicing local opera music in their recent trip to Heze.

Beyond the City is beyond a summer study program. As a social enterprise, it uses half of its revenue for its operations to ensure the sustainability of the organization. They contribute the other half to rural development. Moreover, each of their trips have been well documented and marketed on social media particularly in Weibo and WeChat. They use social media as a sustainable sales channel for the villages. Now they have over 10,000 followers which have brought considerable economic benefits to the villages.

The Challenges and the Future

Beyond the City plans to expand the collaboration with over 100 villages in the next two years. Currently, their top priority is to recruit a talented and responsible tour guides who have project management experience, an education background, and a good understanding of the village.

Xingyu hopes that through their effort more and more urban residents can adopt the concept of rural study, take action to visit the rural areas, and eventually understand the real picture of China’s countryside. Beyond that, Xingyu aiming for more. His ultimate goal is to eliminate the inequality between the urban and rural areas in China.

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