WUJIANG COUNTY, CHINA — AS a youth in a poor village in Jiangsu Province during Mao's Cultural Revolution (1966-76), Gan Qiang killed time raising ducks for the commune and dreaming of ways to make life better for his widowed mother.
Today, Mr. Gan is busy overseeing dozens of rural enterprises in and around his hometown, making business trips to Russia and Vietnam, and playing the stock market and the newly opened metals exchange in nearby Shanghai.
In an little more than a decade, he has led not only his whole family, but his entire village of 1,100 people to prosperity. A gutsy entrepreneur quick to spot a deal, Gan is a member of a new, informal elite whose power is eclipsing that of orthodox Communist Party and government leaders in China's countryside.
"A new local elite is emerging" along with rapid economic growth in Chinese villages, says Shen Yuan, a sociologist and expert on rural China at the Shanghai Academy of Social Services. "These community leaders have high organizational ability, charisma, and the talent to develop the area. All these qualities give them legitimacy" in the eyes of peasants, he says.
Unlike rural cadres from the Maoist era, the upstart leaders often were not groomed by the ruling party and owe it no particular allegience. Praised by peasants as neng ren, or talented people, they are pragmatic risk-takers who place trust in the market - not Marx - to break their villages out of backwardness and isolation.
"The Communist Party doesn't really matter either way. What matters is whether you can develop the country," says Gan, a successful factory director-turned-government official. "No one talks about studying Marx or Mao anymore, we just want to run the economy."
(Gan asked that his name not be used but allowed himself to be photographed because he felt the authorities could not track him down.)
Lanky and soft-spoken, Gan is known in his hometown as a man of action and few words. "In this village, if peasants have problems, they go to him," one resident says.
Ever since his youth, Gan has worked to help his mother, who had to raise three children alone after she was widowed in 1959. After nine years of schooling in Maoist dogma, Gan began tilling the fields at the age of 16.
By 1980, Gan rose to head a production team of 100 peasants. He won praise for helping them escape poverty within three years.
"Gan is like his mother," says a villager. "He doesn't talk much but he exerts tremendous effort to get things done. Everyone cried when he left the production team."
In 1983, Gan set up the village's first factory, producing copper and other metal products. For the factory to succeed, Gan had to establish supply lines with faraway mines in western China and win customers among big state-run firms in Shanghai. At first, each business trip was a trial, since Gan was often turned away as a "country bumpkin."
"I couldn't speak [the Shanghai dialect] well, so some people in Shanghai refused to talk to me. But this had a good side; it helped me discover my weaknesses," he says.
The only advantage of coming from the countryside, Gan jokes, was his ready access to the rice, plump chickens, and watermelons that helped smooth deals with city factory directors.
Gan's skill in "breaking open the outside door" to generate business saw the village-run factory's profits increase 20-fold and workforce grown 10-fold by last year. The factory, now the largest in the community, has contributed funds to build roads, bridges, and install running water, natural gas, and closed-circuit television in the village, further boosting Gan's prestige.
Today, although Gan has never served as an official in his village, he enjoys far higher status than the local Communist Party secretary and government leaders, who often consult him before making decisions, villagers say.
Last year, township officials who oversee his village recruited him as a cadre. But Gan openly voices his distain for bureaucrats.
"In the government, we actually only work about two hours a day. Too many officials are just commentators. Only a few accomplish anything," he chides.
To keep busy, Gan has continued doing what he does best: making money. Through his former business contacts, he trades in commodities and stocks in Shanghai and is considering setting up his own company.
One recent day in Shanghai, Gan was on the telephone borrowing more than $1 million from a friend at a state-run factory to speculate on copper, which was rising rapidly in value.
"I am an official now, but since the markets have been opened up I can deal in anything but guns and drugs," he says. "Naturally, as a cadre I can't go stand in line to buy stocks; I call up other people to buy them for me."
With a large, 10-room, three-bath house, access to a car and driver, and frequent nights of karaoke with his high-powered city executives, Gan enjoys many personal benefits from his success.
But beyond such perks, Gan remains committed to staying in his village of fish ponds, mulberry trees, and rice paddies, still loyal to the ideal of improving life where he grew up. "Here, what I say counts," Gan says.