In early 1984, more than 100 prominent experts and scholars across China received letters signed by Xi Jinping.
These letters were part of a new initiative spearheaded by Xi, then Party chief of Zhengding County in north China's Hebei Province, to discover and woo talent.
One of the letters read as follows: "We are facing a shortage of talent working at the grassroots level and the problems of science and technology gap and limited horizons... After careful consideration, I'd like to ask for your help..."
In 1982, Zhengding was home to 400,000 people; however, fewer than 400 people had received education of junior college or above. Despite the monumental changes brought about by reform and opening-up, which began in 1978, Xi realized that the lack of talented professionals was hindering the economic development of Zhengding.
Against this backdrop, Zhengding became the testing ground for a slew of bold initiatives that would attract talent, remove barriers to recruitment, and, perhaps most innovative at the time, tolerate failure in research programs.
Xi's letters paid off. More than 50 renowned academics and leading specialists, among them mathematician Hua Luogeng and economist Yu Guangyuan, joined in to be part of the Zhengding initiative. They would become the first advisors to give lectures and offer guidance for local development.
Despite skeptics and grievances incurred partly due to the preferential treatment of talent, the pioneering project went ahead.
To better understand talent development, Xi led a team on a research trip to the country's south, the frontline of reform and opening-up. Officials from across the county were also gathered to discuss the talent policy and build consensus.
The county began benefiting from the talent policy. With the help of its advisory group, Zhengding established links with a growing number of universities, research institutions, and leading factories across the country. Before too long, research teams from all over the country started to head to this small county to study the Zhengding experience.
The value placed on practical and intellectual expertise would translate into continued support of talent development throughout Xi's political career.
At the latest central conference on talent-related work in September, Xi, as the country's top leader, offered more insight into how China could sharpen its competitive edge and become a hub for professional talent and innovation in its quest to basically realize socialist modernization by 2035 and build a great modern socialist country in all respects by 2050.
"Never in history has China been closer to the goal of national rejuvenation, and never in history has it been in greater need of talented people," Xi said at the conference.