Wrinkles show up on perfect face
A communist utopia may be falling behind in the race against market reforms, writes Kristine Kwok
At first glance, Nanjie looks much like the utopian neighbourhood that China's communist founders once dreamed of - all properties and enterprises are collectively owned, its residents enjoy free welfare benefits, there are jobs for life and its streets are said to be free of crime and violence.
Even neighbours of this central Henan township administered by Zhengzhou city wish they were born in this so-called last bastion of Maoism. Waiting for business near Nanjie's landmark square, Jie Xinying, a motorcycle taxi driver from a nearby village, admired his neighbours' good fortune.
'Our village officials have embezzled our land to build villas and we have been petitioning for compensation, but to no avail. Such things wouldn't happen in Nanjie. Everything is great there - you have a free house and you don't pay for many things you need. People wish they were Nanjie people,' he said.
But while the collective approach has been a bulwark against the uncertainty and corruption felt in other parts of the country, there is trouble in the workers' paradise.
A giant white marble statue of Mao Zedong takes centre stage in Nanjie's main square, while murals of a supporting cast of fellow communists - Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin - look on. It is a rare scene in today's China after nearly three decades of capitalism.
Nanjie has been upgraded to a township and celebrated as the wealthiest village in the central province. Its 3,180 residents each earn no more than 250 yuan a month but have access to nearly 7,000 yuan in annual welfare benefits, such as health care, education and food rations.
Every household is also provided with identical apartments with identical furniture, including portraits of Mao to be hung on walls. The residents of this 1.78 sq km community are constantly reminded of Mao's thoughts by slogans inscribed on building walls and daily public address broadcasts of revolutionary songs and excerpts from the late helmsman's biography.
The set-up is the brainchild of Wang Hongbin, the township's party secretary since 1977. Just a few years after communes were dismantled across China amid the push for market reforms, Mr Wang decided to buck the trend and re-collectivised enterprises in 1984 and the land in 1986.
'This was everyone's wish,' he said. 'We had tried the 'some people get rich first' policy, but it turned out that 'some people' didn't get rich first, and the rest only got poorer. That's why we returned to the road of collectivism.' After 20 years of development, Nanjie now boasts 26 collectively owned enterprises - five of them joint ventures with firms from countries including Japan and the United States. This year, the total value of output has been put at 1.3 billion yuan, compared to 700,000 yuan in 1984.
Nanjie's products range from flour to beer and drinks and, at one point, the community was one of the mainland's biggest instant noodle makers. But Mr Wang said the value of the community's annual output had dropped by about 100 million yuan due to a more competitive market for instant noodles.
And as light industry on the mainland has declined in recent years, Nanjie's failure to shift to heavy industry has impeded its growth. It's a failure felt in the hip pocket, with villagers complaining of outstanding back pay.
Li Changping , a rural observer and a former Hubei township party secretary who caught national attention after writing a letter to former premier Zhu Rongji , said a lack of a work incentive was to blame for Nanjie's economic slowdown.
'Another reason is that its industries have been too slow to upgrade. These factors have impeded Nanjie's economic efficiency, and reforms are needed,' he said.
A researcher from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, who declined to be named, blamed the downturn on a lack of private ownership in the township. 'When there is no private ownership, they can't expand the business and can't compete. At some point, those enterprises will fail. If the leaders are smart, they'll privatise the enterprises,' he said.
Nevertheless, Nanjie continues to be promoted as a wonderland where people enjoy the benefits of communism while other parts of China are plagued by social problems triggered by liberalisation.
Mr Wang is particularly proud of the community's freedom from the pollution of decadent popular culture. 'Pop music is demoralising. We sing revolutionary songs here,' he said.
There are also no karaoke bars or nightclubs in Nanjie. And only one day of the year, October 1, is set aside for people to get married. 'Nanjie is a big family, so we only have collective weddings,' Mr Wang said.
But while some boast that out-of-town women are eager to marry into Nanjie, Li Ying, a 'Nanjie daughter', says she dreams of moving out. 'I am tired of living here. I toil all day cleaning the streets and I earn no more than 200 yuan.' she said.
Ms Li is married to a Beijing man and has a seven-year-old boy who she hopes will someday go to a university in the capital. 'If we move there now, my son will not be able to go to a good primary school. So we are staying here for now.'
Her husband initially moved to live with her in Nanjie, but returned to Beijing, where he now earns 1,000 yuan a month as a truck driver. 'He felt very restrained here, and could not put up with the compulsory study sessions after work,' she said. 'I doubt if these ideological campaigns will work. There are so many political slogans but they are just empty talk.'
Because she is married to an out-of-towner, Ms Li and her son are not covered by most of the community's welfare benefits.
Another resident, who refused to give her name, said the cradle-to-grave welfare system and a lower cost of living were the main reasons she was living in Nanjie. Although she complained of unpaid wages and a meagre salary of 180 yuan per month for cleaning the streets, the mother of two in her 50s said she had never thought of moving.
'Things are much more expensive outside, and you don't get food and other benefits for free.'
But her daughter, who is now studying at a university in Zhengzhou, may live a rather different life as she and many other young people venture out.
Nanjie has inspired other communities, including Anhui's Xiaogang village, to go down the same the path, but it remains uncertain if it will continue to serve as a model collective village.
The Henan government is also cautious about its virtues. Henan governor Li Chengyu twice sidestepped questions on Nanjie's development in a recent interview.