NANNING, Feb. 25 (Xinhua) -- For generations, the longest distance that many villagers in Zhadong, south China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, could fathom is travel between their village and Nanning, the regional capital.
In 2018, the arrival of a Luxembourg man expanded their horizons across continents.
"The first time I came to Zhadong Village, I was overwhelmed by its natural beauty. The adobe homes fit perfectly with the green environment," recalled Hansen Nico Rene, a 63-year-old retired policeman from Luxembourg.
"But when we entered the houses, we found people were poor. There was a fireplace, a table, and some chairs. The bathroom, if it was, was in the pigsty. Tap water and electricity were the only things to remind me that they were in the second millennium."
The village Hansen visited is in a remote mountainous area in Guangxi's Hechi City. Tucked away in deep mountains, Zhadong Village was known for its spectacular karst landscape but also its grinding poverty.
Before coming to Zhadong, Hansen had settled in downtown Hechi for six years. What brought the retiree to Zhadong was a notice recruiting volunteers to aid the poverty alleviation campaign in March 2018.
In 2015, of some 600 residents in the village, over half lived under the national poverty line, meaning their per capita annual income was lower than 2,300 yuan at 2010 constant values, or 2.3 U.S. dollars in terms of purchasing power parity per person a day. At the time of Hansen's first visit, there were still some parts of the village that were not accessible by roads.
Villager Bi Yonghong, 41, remembers the first time he saw Hansen. "People flocked to see him out of curiosity. They took pictures of him with their phones, as it was the first time we saw a foreigner in our village."
During that visit, Hansen met Xie Wanju, then the first Party secretary of Zhadong. It was a rainy day, but dozens of people were busy in the fields working with cables, bamboo, and iron posts, so Hansen went up to check what was up.
Xie told him they were preparing to grow passion fruit to help people out of poverty. He told him he was the first Party secretary of the village.
"We will never forget the first moment (we met) because this changed my whole life. I met the first secretary, and he was working for the government for poverty alleviation. That was amazing. I said if you need help, I have time," Hansen said. Since then, he picked up a new identity -- the village's first Party secretary's assistant.
Across the hills and rivers, the duo have thenceforth worked closely, day and night, to explore a path toward prosperity for residents. They visited each household, asking about villagers' income and taking careful notes. "I know everyone in the village," Hansen said.
"We first thought he was a tourist, as he was carrying a camera with him," Bi said. "But later, we learned he was a volunteer. He is a warm-hearted and hardworking man, always giving a hand to the villagers in their farm work when he sees them. When he visited my home, he helped us shuck the corn, pick mulberry leaves from the fields, and feed our silkworms."
After the visits, Hansen suggested the village use its backyard to build a farm, and he also participated in the building himself.
"In the backyard, there was land and a jungle. We brought electricity and water, and then we built a small farm. Now there are nearly 2,000 pigs and 200 cows. It is still growing," Hansen said.
Today, this farm brings over 100,000 yuan (about 14,400 U.S. dollars) in revenue to the villagers each year.
Under Hansen's assistance, Xie, with the village's officials and other poverty alleviation workers, developed featured industries, including cattle and sheep breeding and fruit planting.
Their efforts paid off. As of November 2020, the whole of Zhadong Village successfully eradicated poverty. Now local authorities are leading the villagers on a new journey to rural revitalization.
Hansen was quite satisfied with his work in the village. "Now everything has changed. The adobe homes have gone. Today everyone lives in new houses with a separate kitchen, living room, bathroom, and bedrooms. There is also electricity and internet connection."
Hansen returned to the city in May 2021 after finishing his voluntary work. However, with a deep attachment to Zhadong, he often goes back to the village to see his old friends and promotes local tourism by sharing pictures of local landscapes and cultural events on social media with his friends in Europe and beyond.
"I was worried that he came just for fun, but it turned out that he wanted to lend a hand," said Xie, who has now returned to his original work as an official in a governmental agency in Hechi.
"He went up and down the mountains with me without any complaint. In him, I see the spirit of Lei Feng - enthusiastic about public welfare and always ready to help others," Xie added.
"Volunteerism in China is amazing. That, in my view, is also a core spirit of the Party. The world is changing, and the mentality of society is changing. I believe the Lei Feng spirit maybe needs more promotion," Hansen said.
Lei, an ordinary young Chinese soldier in the 1960s, is a household name in China known for devoting almost all of his spare time and money to selflessly helping the needy. He died in an accident at the age of 22 in 1962. In his diary, compiled and published posthumously, Lei likened himself to a small yet indispensable "screw" inside a machine and vowed to "never rust" and to serve the people wholeheartedly.
In 1963, Chairman Mao Zedong called on the nation to learn from Lei, and each year's March 5 has been designated as "Lei Feng Day." Since then, people who volunteer to help others and devote themselves to society selflessly and altruistically are lauded by Chinese people as "living Lei Fengs."
For villagers in Zhadong, the images of "living Lei Feng" now include a foreign face. ■