Is Baoding Cun a hoax? Or a “cultural phenomenon”?

Have you heard about the story of the Baoding Village in Africa?

In 1998, a man named Liu Jianjun, then the head of the Baoding City Bureau of Foreign Trade in Hebei Province, brought a team of officials and local entrepreneurs on an inspection trip to Africa, hoping to bring back some ideas to boost the slow economic progress in the aftermath of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. When the inspection team visited Zambia, Mr. Liu met a village of some 100 former Baoding city residents, who used to be workers of a dam project that China carried out in Zambia in the 1990s. When the dam project came to an end, these Baoding workers did not want to leave Africa, for they realized that their lives were much easier than that had been in China. They could live comfortably by simply growing vegetations, fruits, flowers, raising poultry, and cultivating grains.

Liu was inspired. He believed that this could be the way for thousands of Chinese peasants to pull themselves out of poverty. By farming in Africa. Over the years, with his vision, enthusiasm, and sweet promises, Liu (the Chinese Moses) was able to convince thousands of peasants in Baoding city to move to Africa and set up camps there. In 2004, 270 Baoding Villagers remitted over 9 million US dollars to China through Western Union (that’s over US$30,000 per person). By 2007, over 7000 peasants established 28 Baoding Villages in 17 African countries, including Zambia, South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, Mozambique, Rwanda, Kenya. It was believed that these Chinese peasants gained not only wealth, fame but also deep respect from their fellow African brothers, who supposedly did not have sophisticated methods and technologies for farming and fishing.

Liu’s entrepreneurship and his huge success were widely reported by both local and national Chinese media, on newspapers, internet and televisions. Liu was invited to give a talk on 财富故事会 (Wealth stories), a programme aired on the prestigious CCTV 2 on Jan 23, 2007. He even became a lecturer in the elitist management TV series “Cutting Edge Lectures” (前沿讲座) on “Africa — the last goldmine”.

It seems that Liu has indeed created a miracle. But are these legendary Baoding Villages only imaginary?

After Liu’s media exposure in 2007, his stories and the very existence of these Baoding Villages were severely questioned, especially by many Chinese migrants in Africa. One of the popular websites Africa Windows featured several articles in order to expose Liu’s hoax. An online survey was carried out by Chinese netizens in Africa to document whether they had ever heard of/ seen/ known a Baoding Village in their current country of residence. The result of this unofficial survey concluded that people had no knowledge of the existence of Baoding Village in over 30 countries in Africa including the highly publicized Cameroon, Angola, Sudan, Mozambique, Zambia, Ghana, Uganda, Kenya, Libya, South Africa, Ethiopia, and Rwanda. These angry netizens called Liu a liar and accused CCTV2 and some Chinese newspapers guilty of endorsing Liu’s bogus villages.

At the end of this dajia huodong (battle the bogus movement), Chinese netizens in Africa claimed victory as the main website of the Baoding Village had been completely shut down and Liu supposedly had resigned his post from the Baoding Branch under the China-Africa Chamber of Commerce. Before the website was shutdown, it published another interview where Liu explained how he understood the Baoding Village that he created.

(The interview was originally published on the baodingcun website Since the site’s been shut down, this article is no longer accessible via this direct link. However Google’s cache can still provide a snapshot of this page as it appeared on Dec 28, 2008. I printed a copy of the interview and here it is.)

In Liu’s defense, he declares that the Baoding Village is a “cultural phenomenon” (wenhua xianxiang), something like a Chinatown, or the Wenchou Village, Zhejiang Village in China. It is not an economic entity. It’s just a way of naming, not a registered trademark. (Therefore it is not surprising that people can not find any concrete body of the village.)

I found some of Liu’s points fascinating.

Liu believes that the Baoding Village is a kind of consciousness (yishi), a concept (guannian), which needs to be promoted and expanded among the lesser mobile, economically marginalized Chinese peasants. Whether people can really make money from farming in Africa is of secondary importance, Liu implies that the “inner meanings” (neizai yiyi) of this matter is of more relevance. Liu explains:

Zhang Qian traveled through Central and Western Asia (Zhang Qian tong xiyu). He came back alone empty-handed. But the meaning was in the trip “through” (tong). Zheng He cruised down the western ocean (xiyang, or the Indian Ocean). He did not make a lot of money and even died on boat, but the meaning was his journey “down” (xia). The Red Army walked 25,000 li in the Long March. Only 30,000 out of 300,000 people survived the journey, but the meaning was their “march” (zheng). The Baoding Village is something like yang chadui (penetrate the queue abroad?), and the meaning was to “penetrate” (cha).

The way Liu describes the Baoding Village phenomenon as yang chadui is quite meaningful. Chadui, or literally to penetrate the queue, was a special terminology used to describe a form of the shangshan, xiaxiang movement (up to the mountains, down to the villages; or the Down to the Countryside Movement) that took place during China’s Cultural Revolution period where privileged (and educated) urban youth needed to be sent down to the less developed mountainous and rural areas to learn from the workers and peasants there. In the case of the Baoding Village, Liu termed it as yang chadui. It therefore has inherited another layer of meaning other than the familiar Chinese “labor export” (laowu shuchu) discourse. The Baoding peasants became the new “sent-down youth” to go to the less developed parts of the world (i.e. Africa) to improve themselves (not in terms of political consciousness but more of economic gains I suppose).

Liu especially stresses on the meaningfulness of the action “through” by Zhang Qian, “down” by Zheng He, “march” by the Red Army, and thereby placing his creation, the Baoding Village, at the same level of these historic events. He believes that the action of chadui itself is remarkable:

Let’s say if among 3000 counties and cities in our country, each county can penetrate 10 places, with the rental of 10,000 mu of land in each of those 10 places, then we have 30,000 villages and 300 million mu of land. Can this meaning be measured with money? The lease on land is usually 99 years. Maybe by then Africa will no longer need food aids from the UN. Its industry, technology will be developed immensely. In the past, some countries called foreigners in their country colonists. Now they want to open up and tolerate differences, giving you great deals for you to carry out your yang chadui, and we still debate about whether we should go or not, whether it is right or wrong to go there. Isn’t this too outmoded (luowu)?

Liu’s words reveal a sense of deep “penetration”: by trying to emulate his forefathers, Zhang Qian, Zheng He and soldiers of the Red Army, Liu believes that the significance of making the journey weighs heavier than monetary gains. Relating his statement to Lisa Rofel’s theorization on “desiring China” (2007), it is interesting to see how an ordinary citizen (such as Liu) in China’s not-so-cosmopolitan city of Baoding embraces a self-conscious enthusiasm to search for a new cosmopolitan humanity. Rofel writes that this kind of imagination for cosmopolitan humanity grows out of the uncertainties of social life in reform era China. Chinese citizens create a “desiring China” in order to depart from Maoist socialism and land in a world of freedom (p.197).

Liu still uses the Mao era terminology (i.e. chadui), but his desire has already expanded into making himself a cosmopolitan entrepreneur who is more of a humanist rather than a capitalist. His choice of the word yang chadui reveals that his cosmopolitan imagination is still deeply rooted in the socialist past in a sense that he still makes sense of human mobility in the framework of a bygone era. But Liu’s transnational encounters have opened new possibilities of desire. In his vision of “penetrating” Africa, he does not see himself, or his fellow Chinese, as colonists. Liu envisions that the Chinese presence in Africa is welcomed and desired as they bring in manpower, technology and capital (cultural as well as material) to the less developed part of the world. This vision signals Chinese citizens’ fundamental departure from Maoist socialism where urban youth had to go to the countryside following the “highest directive”, whereas nowadays Chinese peasants could become cultural and economic pioneers who chart their footprints on African soil, not on political orders but on individual free will.

Like what Liu has declared, the Baoding Village is indeed a “cultural phenomenon” in the sense that it has successfully incited great hopes and desires among millions of ordinary peasants in China to start imagine their positions in this new cosmopolitan humanity. Let me turn to Rofel’s concept of “cultural citizenship”. She argues that cultural citizenship creates “desiring China” to which one must prove allegiance. Citizenship is not just a political attribute but also a process which culture becomes a relevant category of affinity, as well as a new process of subjectification (pp.94-95).
By responding to the Baoding Village legend, ordinary Chinese people subscribe themselves to a new culture of global entrepreneurship and imagine the possibilities of a Chinese cosmopolitanism. And I guess this new Chinese cosmopolitanism could be well summarized by the Baoding Village motto:

(Backed by the fatherland, rooted in Africa, catching up with the world;
Led by culture, balanced in righteousness and wealth, achieving mutual benefits)

***   ***   ***   ***

More materials on the Baoding Village:

CCTV2 [财富故事会] 到非洲插队







12 Responses to Is Baoding Cun a hoax? Or a “cultural phenomenon”?

  1. Thank you for this thoughful analysis and for bringing together the material on this phenomenon, which is indeed fascinating. Indeed, whether Baoding Villages exist or are a hoax, the whole construction is worth investigating for all sorts of reasons. One is the way these stories spread — we don’t yet know whether these Chinese farms really exist, but there The Independent goes reporting on them. Another is how Liu presents all these faces: both Moses and Brigham Young, the local official with ’50s references who has set up “temporary party branches” in the Baoding Villages (I wonder if they really do exist, of course!); and the entrepreneur who markets his franchise. The People’s Concession, Inc.!

    I don’t think, though, that Liu’s discourse is cosmopolitan. Cosmopolitanism, for me, is the relishing of diversity for itself, the display of one’s knowledge of balsamic vinegar and Chinese tea as superior to those who only know, say, their local beers. Liu’s discourse is a developmentalist discourse through and through, and I think he is not distancing himself from colonialism; rather, he seems irked by the taboo on anything that has colonial associations, saying that this taboo is outmoded in today’s world. Which may well have caused him to become a liability for China’s foreign service.

    When I was in China in November, I rang the Baoding City Trade Department, in whose building according to some reports Liu’s office was located, but was told that they haven’t heard of him or the Baoding Villages. Liu’s own phone number indicated on the Baoding Villages website went unanswered. So that suggested that there was already some trouble. Was there any indication in the debates you followed why he resigned and why the web page shut down, and what Liu is now doing?

  2. JJ says:

    Yeah I think you are right that Liu was more likely to be a fan of developmentalism rather than cosmopolitanism. But I wonder if Liu considered himself a colonist…at least based on the reports and interviews, Liu seemed to be only interested in getting the land rather than “saving”/”modernizing” the natives (which I guess is pretty much expected given a humble Chinese farmer’s global vision…:) Well in all the debates that I followed, there is no information on why Liu resigned (if he did) or why the site was shut down. People do not know what Liu is doing right now. So Liu just suddenly disappeared…well, not at all uncommon in China, I suppose.

  3. Also, I think Liu’s disappearance has probably less to do with netizens’ questioning of the truth in the Baoding Villages story than with the Chinese government’s decision to downplay overseas landholdings. In 2008, several government communiques were issued to the effect of “China has no plans of encouraging companies or peasants to purchase or lease large tracts of land abroad.” See e.g.; also Duncan Freeman, Jonathan Holslag and Steffi Weil, “China’s Foreign Farming Policy: Can Land Provide Security?” Brussels International Centre for Chinese Studies Asia Paper V. 3(9).

  4. niaochao says:

    Very interesting but now that we know it’s an hoax…

    So did he actually send farmers to Africa? What are the migrant farmers doing in Africa if they are not in these baodijng villages?

    • We don’t know if it’s a hoax. My guess is that the hoax part is Liu Jianjun’s portrayal of the whole thing as a unified project under his leadership, but that there *are* at least some real land deals. Chinese farmers going abroad to grow vegetables for local markets is not new in this recent wave of migration; it is happening in Russia, Kazakstan, Burma and Laos. (In Oudomxay, Northern Laos, all vegetables are said to come from Chinese growers, though I am sure this is an exaggeration.) The long-term concessions also fit into a pattern we have seen elsewhere (notably in Laos and Burma). Although agriculture has not been as important for these concessions as mining, there are various examples of Chinese state farms leasing land abroad. What is interesting about these supposed villages is if they are based more on individual farming.

      • niaochao says:

        Thank you very much Third Tone Devil

        Do you believe Liu Jian Jun’s project is an attempt to send as many poor Henan mingong as possible to Africa (too much farmers in china) , to teach agriculture and produce food for African people or to attract chinese labour for massive industrial agriculture project in africa (green oil in Gabon or Zambia) to secure food and resource autonomy in China?

        Can he get support from Beijing for that ?

      • Niaochao: Liu Jianjun has written and said numerous times that he was interested in both helping poor peasants get rich overseas and to get revenues for Baoding (he used to be the head of the city’s Trade Committee, after all). Plus, I bet, in expanding his own visibility and stature. He never mentioned food and resource autonomy for China.

        Whether he can get support from Peking is a hard question. As always, there are conflicting interests within the government. There has been some analysis about how China’s agricultural enterprises have benefited relatively little from the 走出去 policy, and while they have been lobbying for more, the central government has not prioritised the acquisition of farming resources abroad. (On the contrary, in response to articles implicating China in “land grabs” overseas, it stated last year that China was not interested in leasing farmland overseas as a solution to food sustainability — see article on this in the Bibliography on the Working papers page.) But then Liu has been acting as a broker for relatively small businesses, if any, not large agricultural enterprises, and his fall from grace in Chinese media suggests that the Baodingcun stories were deemed to be too damaging for the foreign affairs bureaucracy.

  5. niaochao says:

    It must be damaging if this looks like colonialism (i send my farmers to Africa to lead a happy life) more than pure business, i guess.

    I feel like Liu Jian Jun has been trying to manipulate peasants, media and gvt… but if the peasants he sends to Africa are happy: should we criticize him? Does he really make money on peasants?

    • That’s the thing: We don’t know if the farmers are happy. Liu says he does not make money on them, but that is contradicted by clauses on the Baoding Villages website that says that each village pays a contribution to the Baoding Villages headquarters, which is run by him.

      In short, we need some on-the-ground research on these issues. At the moment all we have is intriguing hearsay.

  6. […] This piece is only worth noting here because it signals that the familiar discourses of social evolution and of “population quality,” along with fairly crude stereotypes, are alive and well even on such politically prominent sites as People’s Daily Online. So is the story of Liu Jianjun and his Baoding Villages, mentioned again in this review despite claims that it is no more than a hoax. […]

  7. […] Big Army.” Another fitting name after that intrepid pioneer of Chinese farming in Africa, Liu Jianjun (Liu […]

  8. […] leaders, his honorary African titles and his visionary ideas with even more fervour than the earlier reports. The only reference to the extensive questioning, also in Chinese media, of Liu’s credibility […]

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