FEW school dropouts can say they have changed the lives of over 50,000 people. Businessman Tao Zhengxue, 55, has done exactly that by bringing development to the villages on Niangniang Mountain in the southwestern Guizhou province.
His biggest achievement was to spearhead the rural area’s transformation into an eco-tourism park. He also opened up land for fruit farming, thus leading the villagers out of poverty.
Tao did not finish his secondary education and instead became a truck driver. He ventured into business and made his money in coal mining. He used his entrepreneurial skills and experience to improve life in this part of the world he calls home.
“You can never imagine how this place was just a few years ago,” he said, referring to Shepeng, the village where he grew up.
It was worse when he was a child. There were no tarred roads, flush toilets or other basic amenities.
“This place was not accessible to outsiders,” he recalled.
Back then, the villagers were farmers but their harvest was barely enough for their own consumption.
“We were very poor. I shared a room with nine brothers and sisters,” he said.
“There wasn’t even a tiny piece of flat land suitable for agriculture. What you see now is the result of years of our hard work digging out rocks and adding soil.”
The Chinese economic reform began in the late 1970s, when the country opened up for foreign investments.
Factories and businesses were flourishing in the coastal cities, attracting an influx of rural folks seeking better opportunities.
Over 80% of the Shepeng villagers joined the tide. Tao was among them. Only 17 then, he found a job as a long-distance truck driver.
“It was tough. Whenever I came home, I had to park my truck beyond the mountain and walked some 10km because there were no roads,” he said.
After 10 years of driving, Tao borrowed some money from friends and set up a small hostel with a restaurant.
“I believe that doing business is one way to wealth,” he said.
Indeed, that was how he made his first bucket of gold. With that, he went into coal mining in 1995.
That move paid off fantastically. At the height of the business, said Tao, he controlled a company with thousands of employees.
But Tao missed his hometown and he returned to Niangniang Mountain in 2011.
“It was sad to see fellow villagers still suffering from poverty and unable to send their children to university. I wanted to use my skills and experiences to help them,” he said.
Realising that the area’s beauty is its biggest asset, Tao came up with an eco-tourism plan that includes resorts, hot springs and other facilities.
The moist cool weather is also best for farming kiwi fruits, prickly pears, blueberries, waxberries, pomegranates and cherries.
“I persuaded the villagers to join me. I made them shareholders and set up cooperatives for the businesses. Not only do they earn salaries for their hard work, they also have a share of the profits,” said Tao.
The villagers were convinced. They had long wanted development but there had been no bellwether to show the way.
“Those days, my family could hardly get a taste of meat,” said one of the villagers, who wants to be called Uncle Tao. He was once a factory worker in Guangdong province.
“The crops we planted were barely enough for us.”
When he found out about the inspiring plan of Tao Zhengxue, a childhood friend, he returned to lend a helping hand.
Asked if he was ever worried that he would be left with nothing if the plan had not worked out, Uncle Tao said he did not think about that.
“It is my responsibility to do something for my village. Whatever the outcome, at least I tried,” he explained.
He earned between 3,000 yuan (RM1,800) and 5,000 yuan (RM3,000) monthly, almost the same as what he made in Guangdong, but this grandfather was happier as he now spends more time with family while watching his village progress to a better tomorrow.
Tao Zhengxue and Uncle Tao are not related despite the same family name. In fact, some 60% of Shepeng villagers have the surname Tao (pottery).
They belong to the Miao minority tribe. Most of the Miao community have dropped their original family names in the Miao language.
“Our ancestors came from the neighbouring Hunan province. They hid around Niangniang Mountain to escape the war over 200 years ago,” Tao explained.
Nearly 9,000 Niangniang Mountain folks are involved in Tao Zhengxue’s project now. He is also sponsoring dozens of children from the area so that they can go to university.
Asked about his secret to success, he said he is always a hands-on person.
“I don’t just sit around and give orders. Even with farming, I went to the ground, learned from the experts and did it myself,” said the winner of 2016 China’s Top 10 Farmers award.
The Niangniang Mountain region has been gazetted a four-star national scenic area with popular attractions such as the Liuche River Valley, 500m-high Tianshan Waterfall, Tiansheng Bridge and Jiangyuan Cave.
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