How guitars saved a poverty-stricken county

Updated 2017-12-23 10:30:17 Xinhua

Zheng Chuanjiu points to an electric guitar being assembled in his factory: "One in two of this type sold on international market is made here." It is an Ibanez, a famous Japanese brand.

The former farmer is now general manager of Zhunyi Shenqu Musical Instruments, a supplier of six of the top ten guitar brands in the world.

The company made close to half a million guitars last year.

"My storehouse is empty now as there were so many orders before Christmas," the 39-year-old entrepreneur said.

Surrounded by mountains, Zheng's factory covers an area of 50,000 square meters in Zheng'an County of Guizhou Province, one of the poorest regions in southwest China.

The local government has established an "International Guitar Garden" to accommodate 29 guitar manufacturers, hoping the industry can help reduce poverty in the county.

These companies produced a total of five million guitars last year, making Zheng'an one of the largest guitar production bases in the world.

Zheng's factory employs 600 workers, most of them are poor farmers from nearby villages.

"At first, people could hardly believe that guitars played by world-renowned artists were made by a group of farmers," Zheng said.

Zheng does not know how to play guitar, but he is familiar with the 186 working procedures in making one. He said it was the pressure of survival that "changed our hands" -- from planting crops to producing guitars.

In 1993, one of Zheng's brothers went to Guangzhou, a booming industrial and commerce hub 1,300 kilometers away from Zheng'an, to work in a guitar factory run by a Taiwanese. Later Zheng went there to work with his brother.

"My village was very poor. My family could not support me and my three brothers to complete middle school," he said.

The county had a severe drought in 1992. Hungry and thirsty villagers lined up overnight for drops of water seeping from karst rocks, Zheng recalls.

It was in the Guangzhou factory that Zheng and his brother learned the skills to produce guitars, musical instruments that only became popular in China in the early 1980s. Their excellent craftsmanship stunned their boss, who later promoted them to managerial positions.

The brothers opened a guitar factory of their own in 2007, and in 2008 they received an order of 300,000 guitars from Brazil's top brand, Tagima, at the Shanghai international guitar exhibition. Since then orders from foreign clients have never stopped.

"They choose us because the quality of our products is first-rate. We made a rule that a faulty guitar must always be smashed rather than sold at a lower price," he said.

They have sent workers to learn management and manufacturer's experiences in Japan, Brazil and Europe.

"China's efforts for reform and opening up, as well as the desire to participate in globalization, provide an opportunity for fortune-seeking rural people to get out of mountains," said Deng Zhaotao, secretary of the Zheng'an committee of the Communist Party of China.

In 2012, Deng and Zheng'an government officials went to Guangzhou to persuade Zheng to move the production lines back to his hometown.

"The lack of industrial plants had prevented the county from becoming rich," Deng said.

In 2011, more than 125,000 people, or 19 percent of the county's total population, lived under the poverty line (per capital income of 2,300 yuan or about 320 U.S. dollars per year).

"We told them the county's natural environment, including temperature and humidity, were more suitable for guitar production. And the government would provide better loans, lands and services for them to expand production," Deng said.

Zheng decided to return to help the local people make money, just like he had.

Following the brothers, thousands of musical instrument production workers in other provinces went back.

"The government has helped solve the funding problem for my company," said 32-year-old farmer Zhao Shan, who set up a guitar factory in 2016. The company now sells 2,000 guitars online every day. Jack Ma, chairman of Alibaba, the largest e-commerce platform in China, praised the company as a good example of the digital economy.

An expressway was opened in 2015 linking Zheng'an with the outside world. Zhao said Beijing customers could receive his guitars in three days.

"In Zheng'an, I can earn as much as in Wenzhou, a city 1,700 kilometers away from my hometown, where I used to work," said Ye Huan, 27, a female worker in Zheng's factory. "The most important thing is that I can go back home every day to take care of my two kids."

The Zheng'an government plans to build the largest guitar museum in the world and open guitar courses in every school.

"We hope that people worldwide who love guitars will one day visit our county and see it as a holy land," Deng said.

Wu Qi, the county head, said the guitar producers' success had liberated the minds of rural people who were once conservative.

"Now people believe miracles can be created anywhere, anytime in China, if we take advantage of the Party's strong leadership to serve the people who are so diligent and smart," he said.

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