Retro Communes: China's New Utopia? Residents of Nanjie village have almost no money and virtually no private possessions, yet their village is the wealthiest in China's Henan Province. Everything in Nanjie is collectively owned, and the government redistributes everything -- from food, housing and health care to cell phones and broadband -- more or less equally.
NPR logo

Retro Communes: China's New Utopia?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/5583917/5616075" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Retro Communes: China's New Utopia?

Retro Communes: China's New Utopia?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/5583917/5616075" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

For the most part, China's surging economy appears to have dumped communism and Chairman Mao into the dustbin of history.

Still, China's vast land is full of anomalies and holdouts. NPR's Anthony Kuhn visited one neo-Maoist community that has grown wealthy, even as it rails against money and private property.

ANTHONY KUHN reporting:

It's high noon in Nanjie Village, and loudspeakers blare out the classic 1960s anthem, When Sailing the Seas, You Rely on the Helmsmen. A 30-foot-tall white marble statue of the great helmsman himself, Chairman Mao, dominates the village's central square.

With its well-lit boulevards and grassy parks, Nanjie Village appears light years ahead of the dusty, ramshackle towns surrounding it in central Hunan Province.

Mr. ZUNXIAN HUANG (Nanjie Resident): (Speaking foreign language)

KUHN: The village's 3,000-plus permanent residents live in tidy rows of apartments. Seventy-one-year-old former scrap collector Zunxian Huang welcomes guests into his smartly furnished living room. Almost nothing in the three-bedroom dwelling is his, he says proudly.

Mr. HUANG: (Through translator) We just have to bring our own things, like blankets and kitchen utensils, everything else is issued to us by the village -beds, everything. Even these sofa cushions right here are collectively owned.

KUHN: Along with the rest of China, Nanjie began dismantling its communes during the early 1980s, but the reforms didn't seem to be working, so between 1985 and 1990, the village organized farmers to recollectivize(ph) their land and property. Now, going from one apartment to another here is like déjà vu. The furniture and appliances in each home are identical, including the big red clocks with Chairman Mao's head radiating psychedelic colors, to the tune The East is Red.

(Soundbite of clock playing The East Is Red)

Huang explains that the village gives him 30 percent of his income in cash, a total of $32 a month. The other 70 percent is all benefits. Free food and housing, cradle to grave healthcare and education. If the village committee thinks he needs it, they'll even give him a computer.

Nobody here has cars or money in the bank, but Huang says he could hardly be more content.

Mr. HUANG: (Through translator) We pass the days comfortably. We have nothing to worry about. All we have to do is stay healthy and work hard to build a communist community.

KUHN: Huang says his welfare benefits are based on a point system. Village committees regularly inspect homes and award points based on, for example, obedience to the communist party, cleanliness, and respect for ones elders.

Some media and visitors describe Nanjie as a utopia, free of inequality and exploitation. That's an attractive idea in a country struggling with massive income disparities.

Huang Jon Tzing, a county official from eastern Shandong Province, is part of a tour group strolling through the village's botanical garden.

Ms. HUANG JON TZING (Shandong Province County Official): (Through translator) It's the first time I've come into contact with something like this. I'm so surprised. It's too wonderful. I was just telling my colleague how great it would be if we lived here with our kids.

KUHN: Nanjie has attracted thousands of migrants to work in its 26 village-owned factories.

Envious of Nanjie's success, some other villages around the country have followed its example and recollectivized. But villagers here attribute their progress to their charismatic leader. Wang Hongbin has been the village's community party secretary since 1977. He's now 55.

Mr. WANG HONGBIN (Communist Party Secretary, Nanjie): (Through translator) People of my generation were born and raised under the red flag. We grew up singing The East is Red.

KUHN: Besides his mastery of Maoist jargon, Wang Hongbin is also skilled at the art of borrowing. Over the past decade, he's wheedled the equivalent of $150 million in loans out of state banks.

Mr. HONGBIN: (Through translator) Our village got its start with loans. Our factories received no government investment. We farmers had to raise our own capital. Farmers had scarce savings, so the village had to borrow to industrialize.

KUHN: That industrialization, getting surplus farm labor out of the fields and into the factories, has been the real key to Nanjie Village's prosperity. Wang says the village has not yet repaid the loans.

(Soundbite of singing)

KUHN: Unity is strength, sing at the village hotel. But cracks in Nanjie's confident façade are showing. The village's annual economic output has declined by nearly a quarter in recent years. Fierce market competition has caused a partial shutdown over several village factories. And at least one corruption scandal has marred the leadership's credibility.

If the faltering economy causes welfare benefits to dry up, villagers might be less willing to surrender so much economic and political power into their leaders' hands.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Nanjie Village.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.