Young Mao devotees lead an agricultural revolution at the Righteous Path Farm, Hebei
Staffed by young, educated Mao devotees, Hebei’s Righteous Path Farm is an organic slice of communal harmony that would make the Great Helmsman proud, writes Xu Donghuan. Pictures by Simon Song
Each morning at Righteous Path Farm, young men and women assemble outside their dormitories at 5.30am and, as in the days of Mao Zedong's people's communes, are assigned work by a team leader. They then line up and jog in synchronised steps to the fields.
"During the slack season, we begin our day by reciting passages from Mao's teachings and works of classical Chinese literature," says team leader Li Zhe, a 29-year-old spacecraft-design graduate from Beijing Aeronautics and Astronautics University.
Located in Dingxing county, Hebei province, south of Beijing, Righteous Path is one of many organic farms that have sprung up over the past few years on the outskirts of the capital. Following a string of well-publicised food scandals - involving everything from tainted formula milk to pesticide-laced ginger and sausages made from rotten meat - a growing number of city residents have deserted their local vegetable markets and flocked to the suburbs, in search of safer produce.
What makes Righteous Path stand out from the other organic farms, however, is the Maoist ideology that underlies its operations.
Hanging on a wall at the entrance to the farm is a huge poster of Mao's model soldier, Lei Feng, and the words "Serve the People". In the Mao era, Lei was portrayed as an example of selflessness, modesty and devotion to the Communist cause for everyone to emulate.
Inside the main farm building, there is a room that contains a shelf of mainland-published books on Mao. The young people who work here share a deep admiration for the late chairman and call themselves Mao's New Educated Youth.
"In the times of Mao, he encouraged youth to go to the countryside. After some years, most of them returned to the cities. Now we feel we need to go back to the countryside because we need this kind of experience," says Zhang Xiuwen, 25, a real-estate-management graduate from Beijing Forestry University.
She works in the farm's clinic, travelling back to Beijing every two weeks to attend private tutorials with a traditional medicine practitioner. Her work is reminiscent of that of the barefoot doctors of the Mao era: farmers with minimal medical and pharmaceutical training who treated patients at village-based clinics.
RIGHTEOUS PATH FARM is the brain child of 47-year-old Han Deqiang, an economist and radical Maoist professor from Beijing Aeronautics and Astronautics University.
"All of my friends have cancer patients in their families," says Han, as we sit down in a shaded courtyard near the farm entrance. "There must be a connection between the high incidence of cancer and the tainted food we eat.
"We're also here to build a utopian community for people on the righteous path. By 'righteous path' I mean Mao's path to serve the people."
Soft-spoken and smiling, the bespectacled professor bears little resemblance to the firebrand who, on September 18, 2012 - the anniversary of Japan's invasion of China - slapped an 80-year-old man during a protest over the disputed Diaoyu Islands (known as Senkaku in Japan) outside the Japanese embassy in Beijing. Han alleged the old man had repeatedly insulted the Great Helmsman during the demonstration.
"It was an occasion to release emotions, to throw eggs and to break the police barricades," says Han, nearly two years after the event. "If not me, other people would have done the same. He deserved it."
From a young age, Han says, he has religiously followed Mao's teachings: "I often visited homes of the elderly to assist with daily chores, from chopping firewood to filling up their drinking water tank. It was a healthy social atmosphere, then, when everyone took pride in following the examples of Lei Feng."
When Mao died, in 1976, Han was a nine-year-old fourth grader in Shaoxing, a picturesque town in eastern Zhejiang province.
"Although we chanted 'Long live Chairman Mao' everyday, Mao was just a portrait on the wall, an abstract being in my mind. So when the adults cried over his death, I did not feel anything," he recalls.
However, when Deng Xiaoping came to power and university entrance exams were restored, Han felt perplexed when everyone at his school suddenly began valuing academic performance over the nurturing of a selfless character. The concern stayed with him through his years at university.
In 1989, he graduated with a degree in business management from Beijing Aeronautics and Astronautics University. He was then employed by the university as a student supervisor in charge of work on political thought. In 1991, Han composed a letter on where he believed China was heading and posted it to all the provincial leaders and his boss at the university. In 1992, when Deng, on a southern tour, delivered the famous speech that reasserted his economic agenda, Han was devastated.
"I could not agree with Deng's cat theory, when he said it does not matter if it's white or black so long as it catches mice and it's a good cat," he says. "How can you run a country without a principle?"
As an economist, Han advocates a moral market economy as opposed to the prevalent market liberalisation, which, he believes, has been the source of so many of the problems we see today, from the increased polarisation of rich and poor to the erosion of public resources.
"Through the perspective of Mao, I saw the problems in our current reform," he says. "The more I read about Mao, the deeper I respect him. That's how I came to be a passionate advocate of re-idolising Mao."
In 2003, Han co-founded the website Utopia.
"I know Utopia is unrealistic to realise, but why can't I dream about it?" he says.
Utopia became a leading Maoist forum, a place for ideological debate and a refuge for those nostalgic for Mao's rule and concerned the country had departed from its communist principles. But in April 2012 the government shut the website down amid the political crisis that followed the dismissal of Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai, who had enthusiastically endorsed the revival of "red culture".
The shutdown led to a rift among the Maoist scholars who ran the site and some, probably under political pressure, went their own way. Utopia lives on as an entity and now runs a bookstore, organises tours to North Korea, Cuba and revolutionary bases in the mainland, and has apparently launched two, less conspicuous websites. Han left to set up a couple of red websites of his own - haodaxue.net ("haodaxue" means "good university") and zhengdao.us ("zhengdao" means "righteous path"). While haodaxue. net is more attuned to university students and less radical in its agenda, zhengdao.us is similar in nature to Utopia.
"I was not happy with the changes at Utopia. Over the years, it had become a forum for class struggle. I saw no point in continuing my involvement in the ideology debate on the website. I'd rather set up an organic farm where I could create an actual utopia."
Last April, Han brought the teams from his two websites to rural Hebei, rented 10 hectares of land from a defunct state-owned farm and started Righteous Path, with more than a million yuan (HK$1.2 million) of investment from Maoist friends. The farm consists of greenhouses, open fields, orchards and a sheep shed. Like other organic farms around Beijing, Righteous Path follows the model of community-supported agriculture, meaning subscribers pay in advance for a weekly home delivery of produce.
Twenty recent university graduates now work as permanent staff at the farm, assisted by a dozen student volunteers, some of whom labour on weekends and holidays while others are on internships. They consult books and local farmers to learn the skills they need. Han travels between the farm and the university, where he teaches two courses, business strategy and management, at the School of Business Management.
Although Mao's people's commune concept was a utopian disaster, there are several extant examples to serve as role models for Han.
In Linying county, in central Henan province, Nanjie Village, also known as "Mao's last village", has become a magnet for staunch Maoists clinging to their egalitarian principles. In the mid-1980s, when Deng's market reforms were introduced, the village went in the opposite direction, by collectivising its agricultural production and industry.
Israel has kibbutzim, collective communities that started as agriculture-focused utopian communes, while Japan has Yamagishi rural egalitarian communities, within which there are no bosses and people live without money.
At Righteous Path, communal life means dormitories and big shared pots at meal times. Everyone takes turns to cook for all.
With food and lodging provided, there are no salaries here. Instead, everyone is handed a monthly living allowance of 1,500 yuan. The young co-workers all appear happy with the arrangement.
Bai Qiongli, 24, who was a nurse at a People's Liberation Army hospital in Henan, joined the farm a month ago, to experience a new lifestyle.
"I put aside all material gains when I decided to come here," she says, as we talk in the walnut-tree garden.
Not far away, pulling up weeds in a bean field, is Du Xiandong, 23, a journalism graduate from Hubei province. He worked here as a volunteer before signing up as a full-time staff member less than three months ago.
"I don't think a media job can let me experience the same kind of joy and happiness," he says. "Here at the farm, there are no bosses and subordinates. Everyone is a master of the land."
There are no employment contracts to be signed, which means no retirement pensions, no medical, unemployment or work-injury insurance and no paid parental leave, as required by the nation's labour laws.
"We are not interested in those formalities," Li says. "At Righteous Path, everybody is taken care of by the farm. Trust and ethics are what we are here for."
He explains that the small traditional Chinese medicine clinic the farm runs within its compound handles everyday problems, from flu to therapeutic treatment. For more serious illnesses, the staff can go to hospital, with all costs covered by the farm.
To cater for future generations, there are plans to build a branch of Sunflower Kindergarten at the farm. A red kindergarten (where youngsters learn about the selfless heroes of the revolution) started by Han in July 2012, Sunflower has three branches, two in the suburbs of Beijing and one in Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, mostly attended by children of migrant workers.
"In the future, we will have a primary school and a high school. When our staff members retire, we will have a retirement home for them. It has all been laid out as part of our harmonious community," Li says.
For the time being, however, the young men and women who work here are not encouraged to fall in love and start families.
"We tell our young workers not to start relationships within the first three years of joining the farm," Li says. The guideline was issued by Han, who did not marry until he was 36.
"Karl Marx saw family as the origin of private ownership. We believe that when two people get close, they tend to stay away from the group," says Li, who has a girlfriend back in Beijing. "Since we are here to establish a collective community, we hope everyone remains open to each other as long as possible."
Other than a recently married couple, who sleep in a room of their own, the rest of the young people at the farm are single.
IT IS HIGH NOON AND the sun is beating down. Covered in sweat, Huang Defu, 25, is tending to the free-range chickens in the walnut-tree garden. A marketing graduate from Shandong province who joined the farm a year ago, Huang has developed a deep tan during long hours working outdoors.
"I believe Righteous Path is the best organic farm in China," he says. "I am very happy here."