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An Old Dogma's New Twist

Residents of the Chinese village of Nanjie have happily reverted to communism. The secret to their success? A hefty dose of capitalism.

January 20, 2005|Ching-Ching Ni | Times Staff Writer

NANJIE, China — The sky is still black when the village loudspeaker blasts the revolutionary song "The East Is Red." A three-story-high statue of Chairman Mao looms over a Tiananmen-like square flanked by giant portraits of the socialist all-stars: Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin.

A new day has arrived in this commune on China's central plains where residents enjoy free food, housing, healthcare, schooling -- even free weddings and funerals.

As the rest of China struggles with mounting social problems brought on by two decades of turbocharged economic reforms and vanishing social safety nets, the decidedly retro Nanjie seems to have found the answer to the good life. It is the best known of a handful of villages to return to the country's communist past.

Of course, its definition of the good life doesn't include what village bylaws deem "excessive living." Fancy restaurants, karaoke bars, music clubs and mahjongg are all forbidden. And though Nanjie is free of crime and unemployment, it is also free of all the trappings of personal freedom that are part of life for most Chinese citizens today.

At work, villagers study Mao Tse-tung quotations and attend self-criticism sessions. To marry, they participate in a group wedding held once a year in front of a giant portrait of the chairman. Then the village buses them off to a honeymoon in Beijing -- because that's where Chairman Mao lived, a villager explained.

At home they sit on identical village-issued, natural-wood-frame sofas, watch the same TV sets and tell time on the same Mao clocks that are adorned with bright rays lighting up his face and the slogan "Chairman Mao is human, not God. But Chairman Mao's thoughts are greater than God."

"The only thing I had to buy myself was the microwave and these plastic tulips," said villager Wang Fenghua, 57.

Although the teachings of the "Great Helmsman" serve as the moral compass for the 3,100 people of Nanjie, the real secret to its collective well-being is, well, capitalist: two dozen village enterprises manufacturing all sorts of things -- noodles, beer, pharmaceuticals. One even promotes "red tourism."

"The widening gap between the rich and the poor. Corruption. Crime. What is the root cause of all these social ills? Privatization. Our goal is to realize communism. But communism needs to make big money -- only big money can make communism better. There is no contradiction in that," said Wang Hongbin, the 53-year-old village leader credited with lifting Nanjie out of poverty by marrying communist ideals with capitalist mechanics.

It started about 20 years ago, shortly after Beijing began testing the waters of market reform by dismantling people's communes and giving individuals the incentive to create their own wealth. The people of Nanjie also tried their hand at privatization, but they didn't like what they saw. In their view, the entrepreneurs who built factories exploited workers to line their own pockets and gave nothing back to the community.

That's when Wang decided to reverse course by persuading villagers to give their land back to the collective so they could run businesses together.

He led the village to take over the factories and recollectivize the land. He sold the chickens at his egg farm and moved into the village flour mill to help direct operations.

Today, Nanjie is home to 26 enterprises and joint ventures and employs about 11,000 laborers, making it the wealthiest village in Henan province.

But as its de facto CEO, Wang is no millionaire. He makes $30 a month, a sum he set for himself and the rest of the cadres in his small-town utopia. That's about what a poor Chinese farmer earns but only about a third of what an urbanite makes.

It's all part of his "fools" theory, written prominently in red ink on the walls behind the village square: "Only fools can save China."

"China needs fools. The world needs fools," the down-to-earth Wang said. "What does it mean to be foolish? Self-sacrifice."

But Wang is also realistic. Thirty dollars is not going to get him the kind of talent he needs to run his export-driven businesses in an increasingly competitive marketplace. That's why he didn't think twice about hiring an outside brewery executive with a PhD at an annual salary of $60,000.

His adaptability is supported by another of his beloved slogans: Wai yuan nei fang, or "Circle on the outside, square on the inside."

The circle refers to the flexibility of the market economy and the square the dogma of communism. Their coexistence represents the "third way" that allows Nanjie to hold on to Maoist nostalgia without rejecting the benefits of capitalism.

"I hate capitalism. But I have to face reality," Wang said, adding: "Communism is our highest ideal. It will never go out of style."

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