A village clings to Mao period past
A town makes for a tourist attraction and model for old Communist ideology
Disneyland has “Main Street, USA”, a monorail and Mickey Mouse. China’s Nanjie village has “East is Red Square”, red trams and Mao Zedong. Every year, hundreds of thousands of visitors flock to the hamlet in central Henan province which has become an attraction with its idealised vision of village life right out of the Communist past.
While the Communist Party prepares to give a second term to its current supremo, Xi Jinping, at a major congress next week, Nanjie still clings firmly to Mao, while glossing over the violence of his rule.
The village’s 3,700 residents wake up every morning to broadcasts praising Mao and start their work days with a hearty group rendition of “red” songs about the virtues of Communism.
Nanjie follows a retro model of collectively-owned enterprises and chirpy ideological indoctrination, appearing frozen in an era before market reforms transformed China into the world’s second largest economy.
Tourists take small red trams with names like “Moderate Prosperity” and “Chinese Dream” from the giant Mao statue in the town’s iconic “East is Red Square” to parks, factories and public housing blocks where residents share stories about the joys of collectivism.
But its brand of Communism looks set to make a comeback, with Mr Xi recently telling top officials that the party “would lose its soul and direction” if it deviated from Marxism.
Even “Xi is asking everyone to study Chairman Mao,” said Wang Hongbin, who has been Nanjie’s party secretary since 1976.
Since taking power in 2012, Mr Xi has pushed for more state control over the economy while Communist Party branches are being set up inside private enterprises.
In the 1980s, when most of China was sprinting away from Mao-era collectivism, Nanjie’s Party Secretary Wang doubled down.
He turned up the ideological volume and offered free housing, healthcare and food to residents working for a pittance at village-owned enterprises.
The moves found favour with the country’s leftists, but many people “didn’t understand Nanjie, didn’t support it or even criticised it,” Mr Wang said.
Since the last party congress in 2012, however, “the central government’s voice has grown closer and closer to Nanjie’s way of doing things.”
Today, residents live in modest public apartments, identical right down to the furniture and flatscreen TVs.
“Everything is managed very well,” government employee Wang Chunju said as she sat in her community-provided flat.
But it is hard to tell how much is real and how much is a show for Nanjie’s visitors.
The village may be a Communist collective, but much like China’s overall economy, its development is massively leveraged.
In 2008, an investigation by Southern Metropolis Daily revealed the village took out over 1.6 billion yuan (8 billion baht) of bank loans due to economic issues.
China’s “leaders” ordered Henan to solve the issue, he said, and the debts were effectively forgiven.
While officials said tourism makes only a small contribution to Nanjie’s economy, its image is an asset that earns it the support of top politicians.
Outside Nanjie’s gates, a woman working at a liquor store admiringly explained the village’s fascination.
“They’re real Communists over there,” she said with a laugh. “I guess you could say the rest of us are capitalists.”
Communist Party military pins and uniforms on sale at Panjiayuan antique market in Beijing. As the party prepares to give a second term to its current supremo, Xi Jinping, at a major congress next week, Nanjie clings firmly to Mao.