Caixin
Dec 29, 2018 06:08 PM
SOCIETY & CULTURE

China’s Collective Villages Struggle to Keep It Together

A corner of the town square in Nanjie, Henan province. Photo: Shi Yangkun/Sixth Tone
A corner of the town square in Nanjie, Henan province. Photo: Shi Yangkun/Sixth Tone

(Sixth Tone) — The sun rises on a chill November morning in Nanjie, Central China’s Henan province, illuminating a giant statue of Mao Zedong in the village’s central square. Behind the former Chinese leader, a giant wall-poster honors four other towering figures of communism: Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin, and Josef Stalin.

Mao casts a long shadow over Nanjie in more ways than one. On the surface, the government of the 3,000-strong village has retained a collectivist social system reminiscent of the Mao era, guaranteeing residents full employment, free housing, free health care, and subsidized college education.

In doing so, Nanjie offers a rebuttal to the conventional wisdom of China’s four decades of economic reform. The policy — officially known as “reform and opening-up” — has largely seen the state move away from rigid central planning and political dogma, instead allowing the market economy to take over. In doing so, China has transformed from an economic backwater into the world’s second-largest economy, lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty in the process.

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But Nanjie, along with other pockets of China, have partly retained the former political model. They are the country’s so-called collective villages — small, often isolated settlements that retain vestiges of the pre-reform socialist system. Many such villages are openly nostalgic for a time when Mao was China’s paramount leader and the state, at least on paper, looked after its citizens from cradle to grave.

In practice, collective villages are less like throwbacks to the Mao era, and more like businesses: The village government owns and operates a corporation, residents work for it, and the corporation, in turn, plows its profits back into salaries, perks, and village infrastructure. By and large, this system leaves residents feeling wealthy and well looked-after.

But when utopian social ideology collides with aggressive business models, conflict is inevitable. In Nanjie, for instance, individualistic young people struggle to connect emotionally with the collective’s spirit of self-sacrifice. Huaxi, in eastern China’s Jiangsu province, claims to be the “richest village in China,” but some residents complain its economic success has created a privileged class of villagers who lord it over their neighbors. And in Dazhai, a village once lauded by Mao himself as a shining beacon of socialism, long-term economic malaise has pushed residents into tourism tinged with Maoist nostalgia — with mixed results.

What can the experiences of collective villages tell us about how China balances ideology, economy, and the desire to preserve social order? Over the course of several months, Sixth Tone’s reporters visited Nanjie, Huaxi, and Dazhai to find out.

Utopia, redefined

Nanjie officials position the village as a kind of modern-day socialist utopia, hamming up its so-called red culture — a celebration of the history of communism in China and party rule. Older villagers in particular laud a deep sense of camaraderie and welcome protection from the more cutthroat aspects of the market economy. “There are no worries around here, no pressure,” says 56-year-old Cui Miaoyun, a longtime resident of Nanjie who works at the local noodle factory. “The village takes care of us: from education, to marriage and finally, to death.”

But in reality, Nanjie’s capitalist business model is hard to ignore. The local government runs Nanjie Village Group, a conglomerate that produces everything from plastic packaging to instant noodles and corporate printing services. The government guarantees villagers a job at the group, paying them 30% of their salary in cash and putting the remaining 70% into public services like housing, health care, and university grants. Authorities also keep tabs on its citizens’ behavior via a complex 10-point ranking system. Nanjie’s government even holds communal wedding ceremonies and provides free cremation and burial services.

Although not as wealthy as more developed parts of rural China, the living standards in Nanjie are higher than in other Henan villages, and the government’s redistribution policy means that there is relatively little difference between rich and poor. But life in Nanjie isn’t as harmonious as it seems. Instead of income inequality, the village is struggling to bridge the gap between community-minded older residents and increasingly individualistic younger generations.

Born in an impoverished nearby village during the Mao era and raised during the Cultural Revolution, Cui became an official resident after marrying her Nanjie-born husband more than 30 years ago. Initially, she worked as a saleswoman at the village’s instant-noodle factory during the group’s early years. The position was seen as one of the best in the village; Cui took business trips to cities like the provincial capital, Zhengzhou, earning a commission on the number of products she sold. While other workers only made a few hundred yuan a month, Cui sometimes took home several thousand — a princely sum at the time.

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Left: Nanjie villager Cui Miaoyun poses for a portrait at home. Right: An employee works at a noodle factory in Nanjie. Photo: Shi Yangkun/Sixth Tone

Cui, who wears a thick layer of makeup to brighten up her regulation dark-gray work overalls, is a staunch believer in the Nanjie model, which she adamantly refers to as “socialism.” While the village of her birth is still struggling to shake off the specter of poverty, Cui says that Wang Hongbin — Nanjie’s village committee head and the group’s chief executive — has almost single-handedly brought wealth to the entire village and fostered a unique community spirit. “Before Work Team Leader Wang came along, we hadn’t truly realized socialism,” Cui said, referring to Wang by his official title. “People were just farming the fields before he opened the factories.”、

Wang has been Nanjie’s village Party secretary since 1977, the year before China launched its market reforms. He co-founded the group in 1986 and, in 1993, announced a village-wide plan to build a “communist community” that would generate enough collective wealth for villagers not to need private savings. In the ensuing years, Maoist slogans reappeared around the village. Factory workers and villagers are required to learn Marxist philosophy, Mao’s quotations and most recently, the works of Chinese President Xi Jinping. The village newspaper publishes a daily stream of Maoist propaganda stories.

Wang is also idolized, and snippets of his speeches decorate the walls of many of the village’s buildings. He is at the helm of Nanjie’s governmental and business operations; little of note happens in the village without his say. But despite inspiring devotion, Wang is far from infallible. Sometimes, his vision for the village’s future is overambitious, if not reckless.

Wang has a predilection for investing in massive, but ineffective, infrastructure projects. According to “Nanjie Society,” a 2004 book documenting the history of the village, in 1999, Wang presided over the conglomerate’s decision to invest tens of millions of yuan in a “perpetual motion machine,” a hypothetical contraption considered impossible, because it would violate proven laws of thermodynamics. According to the book, Wang apparently insisted the project was feasible, argued that success would help put Nanjie on the map, and silenced villagers who publicly criticized the project. The project was formally shut down in 2011; Wang only held onto his job after making a humiliating, Cultural Revolution-style self-criticism at a meeting of village cadres.

When Sixth Tone finally pins down the elusive Wang, he claims that Nanjie plans to diversify its economy in the coming years by upgrading its existing food-processing industry and embracing organic agriculture. But he also has another, more dubious, project underway — one that Wang refuses to describe as anything other than “clean energy.” When we press him for details, he becomes strangely evasive, calling the project “unique” and the “world’s first form of clean energy.” (There are several forms of clean energy on the market.) Wang repeatedly refuses to reveal details of the project, how much it will cost, and whether the conglomerate’s investment was a group or individual decision. Instead, he cryptically quips: “Only a few people ever know the reality of things.” To date, the conglomerate has already invested 4 million yuan ($579,900) on the project, Wang says.

On the village square, under Mao’s watchful gaze, Sixth Tone meets Yang Xing, a soft-spoken 25-year-old Nanjie native. He says most villagers still revere Wang, despite his penchant for wacky and wasteful megaprojects. “He’s been the village secretary for so many years now, we can only go along with what he says,” says Yang. “Everyone trusts him … and nobody knows what it would be like if we changed secretaries now.”

Younger residents like Yang have more complicated relationships with Nanjie than older ones. Yang returned to his hometown in early April after 10 years away. Like Yang, many younger villagers migrate to China’s cities for work, but come back to the village to enjoy the benefits of being an official resident. Yang, for example, no longer worries about finding a job, enjoys lower living costs in Nanjie than elsewhere, and knows he will receive a free-to-use apartment if he gets married. But despite his appreciation for Nanjie’s comfortable lifestyle, a decade away has changed him in subtle ways.

Like many of his peers, the teenage Yang found life in Nanjie rather monotonous. He itched to experience the various entertainment found in urban China: the shopping malls, the bubble-tea shops, the karaoke bars. As a 15-year-old middle-school student, Yang moved to Beijing and worked as a security guard. In his spare time, he’d often sit for hours on the subway, which he viewed as the pinnacle of modern living. “I enjoyed sitting and observing all the different kinds of people on their ways to work,” he recalls.

But as the months passed, Yang struggled to cope with feelings of isolation and alienation. In Beijing, people weren’t striving together toward a common goal; instead, they were working toward individualistic forms of fulfillment. Yang began taking frequent nighttime trips to Xidan, a popular shopping area. “Down there, police officers sometimes demanded to see my ID card, asking me where I came from and what my name and age were,” Yang says. “It was a fond reminder of the nighttime curfew we had in Nanjie [during my childhood]. At night, local members of the people’s militia stood at the village gates to prevent outsiders from getting in.”

Six months after moving to Beijing, Yang quit his job and moved to the southern city of Guangzhou, where he worked in a succession of different restaurants and karaoke bars. Compared to Beijing, Yang found Guangzhou more relaxed, and grew to enjoy city life. In both cities, he earned about 2,500 yuan a month.

Yang returned to Nanjie, not because he didn’t like Guangzhou, but because he thought it was time to settle down and start a family. “Most young people return when we reach marriageable age,” he says. “Housing prices in the cities place huge pressure on us, so we can’t easily marry and start families there.”

Back in Nanjie, the village government assigned him work as a warehouse keeper at the group’s instant-noodle factory and put him on a salary of 1,800 yuan a month — less than his previous salary, but significantly more than the Henan rural average of 1,060 yuan. But after so many years in fast-paced cities, Yang says he struggled to settle back into small-time village life, with its dull work and endless evenings devoid of entertainment. So, he and his parents recently spent the bulk of their savings on a new three-room apartment in Linying, a slightly more bustling county town a 10-minute drive away from Nanjie. In October, Yang left his job at the group; he now hopes to open a karaoke bar in Linying, but lacks the money to do so. Reluctant to lose the perks of working at the group, Yang found someone to take over his warehouse-keeper job. His replacement pretends to be Yang, fooling the government into thinking Yang still lives and works in the village and qualifies for the associated benefits. Yang gives his salary to his replacement.

Lots of young returnees struggle to connect with Nanjie’s collectivistic ideals, because the outside world has fostered too strong a sense of competition, Yang says. “All I know is that I must look after myself,” he says. “I must get to a point where I feel I’m doing all right for myself.”

Like Yang, 18-year-old Guo Tianlong couldn’t wait to leave Nanjie for good. He describes the atmosphere in his hometown as “repressive,” and wants to live somewhere with a more diverse, individualistic lifestyle.

In September, Guo began a course at a vocational college in Zhengzhou, but already, he feels that life in the big city is “too much pressure.” He’s thinking about joining the army, saying he hopes the training will make a man out of him.

Like many other young villagers in Nanjie, Guo — who wears oversized T-shirts and listens to rap and hip-hop in his spare time — has a complex and confused relationship with Nanjie. His hometown offers warmth and security, but lacks opportunities for individual fulfillment.

These days, only older villagers seem to fully buy into Nanjie’s self-styled socialist utopia. Cui bought an apartment in Linying a few years ago — “just as an investment,” she says — and rents it out, and continues to live in her village-assigned apartment. Although she thinks the ’90s-style decor now looks a bit outdated, she’s heard that the conglomerate is building a set of 25-floor apartment blocks equipped with elevators. “Construction will be finished in four or five years,” she beams, “and then everyone will move there together.”

Some are more equal than others

In 2016, after getting his master’s degree in management from Japan’s prestigious Chuo University, Ge Xiaotong returned to China and became a farmer.

That summer, Ge toiled in the fields of his home village, Huaxi, East China’s Jiangsu province, from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. The weather was hot and humid, and sweat soaked his shirt. It wasn’t the most conventional introduction to management, but Ge didn’t complain. After all, most employees at the Huaxi Rice Company do likewise.

In the early 1980s, when the Chinese government began encouraging private enterprise, Huaxi’s villagers — like their peers in Nanjie — chose to retain many pre-existing collective forms of social organization, but also adopt certain capitalist characteristics. The village government owns and operates Huaxi Group, a business conglomerate that controls most of the village’s economic assets and all of Huaxi’s land and property. The government assigns every villager in the 3,000-strong village a job at the group, provides rent-free housing, and gives them shares in the firm. Media outlets frequently refer to Huaxi as “the richest village in China.”

For many of Huaxi’s residents, the model is extraordinarily successful. Since the group was established in 1987, it has invested heavily in steel and textiles — two industries at the heart of China’s economic rise — and today, its assets are worth 54.2 billion yuan. Families who have worked in the company for decades generally own millions of yuan in shares and receive hundreds of thousands in annual dividends. Government-assigned housing is far from the decrepit housing blocks associated with socialist and communist regimes. Residents live in luxurious villas decorated in mixed European and Chinese styles — antique rotary telephones on solid redwood tables, Chinese landscape paintings on marble walls, and square stone pillars.

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The Long Wish Hotel, a 328-meter tower that was once the eighth-tallest building in the world, in Huaxi, Jiangsu province. Photos: Shi Yangkun/Sixth Tone

But despite Huaxi’s opulence, social divisions persist. In 2001, the village boundary was expanded. Huaxi’s jurisdiction grew more than thirtyfold, and its population increased to around 35,000. The group took control of the land and resources and claims to have improved infrastructure and living conditions for people who reside in so-called Greater Huaxi. But its new denizens say the group has not given them the same privileges as its core 3,000 villagers.

Although Huaxi preaches a model of egalitarianism, several people from Greater Huaxi tell Sixth Tone that locals treat them with contempt. Today, large numbers of Greater Huaxi residents work for the group, usually in menial jobs with lower salaries than the high-status positions held by core villagers. People from Greater Huaxi are also more likely to live in rundown accommodations, and they lack equal access to good public health care and education.

As a core villager, Ge is one of the privileged few. Growing up in the ’90s, he spent several childhood years in lavish villas built and maintained by the group. In his spare time, Ge played badminton at the high-quality local sports center; when he got sick, he received timely care at the village hospital — a rarity in China. The young Ge thought all villages in China were like Huaxi; later, when he attended middle school in a poorer nearby town, Ge was confused when his classmates asked if coming from Huaxi meant his family was very rich.

Ge’s mom and dad — who now work in the group’s hospitality and steel businesses, respectively, and have also received handsome dividends — paid for his $7,000 tuition fees in Japan. When Ge graduated and returned to Huaxi — as 96% of the village’s college graduates do, according to the local publicity department — they also bought him a 400,000-yuan Lexus for the 10-minute drive to and from work. Ge swells with pride when he speaks of life in Huaxi. “I don’t feel any pressure to support myself,” he says. “I only work to fulfill myself spiritually.”

Huaxi Rice — a group subsidiary for whom Ge works — offers young graduates chances for rapid career-advancement. The company was established in 2015 by the village’s Party secretary Wu Xie’en, and the following year sent seven young villagers to study agriculture from experienced farmers in Japan, and offers well-paid management positions after graduates do a few years of groundwork. The only requirement is that you must be one of the core villagers — or married to one — to apply.

So far, it’s been a happy homecoming for Ge, who earns around 8,300 yuan a month at Huaxi Rice — nearly three times the provincial average. “Huaxi offers a good platform,” he says. “Why bother chasing your dreams in the big cities if you can realize them here?” His peers sell cosmetics online, manage asset portfolios in Shanghai, and supervise mining operations in Mozambique — all under the group’s direction. The company is now so huge that even if one side of the business fails, it simply reassigns workers to other divisions, virtually guaranteeing lifetime employment. “I don’t worry about failure,” Ge says. “If we fail, we just start again.”

But outside the village center, life is rarely so comfortable. Here, people’s lives often take a different path — and their wealthy neighbors can be more of a hindrance than a help.

Around the same time Ge came home, Wang Wei, a 33-year-old man who wears pale-blue work shirts and slightly-too-short corduroy pants, quit his job as a security guard in Huaxi. Wang grew up in nearby Sanyuxiang, a small settlement that was renamed “Huaxi No. 2 Village” after the village boundary was redrawn. He is disgusted by the lack of opportunities for people like him, whom he says are treated poorly by established residents.

“People like us can only do menial jobs in Huaxi,” says Wang, who used to work as a security guard in a residential complex. The job paid 3,000 yuan a month — “too low,” in his words — and offered no housing supplements, share options, or any of the other benefits that beef up the core villagers’ salaries. Since quitting, Wang has found work at a car factory in Huashi, a town an hour’s drive away. For 12 hours each day, he cuts metal in a sweltering workshop for about 3,700 yuan a month. It is only a fraction more than he was earning before, but because Wang no longer rubs shoulders with the snooty Huaxi elite, he feels comparatively much richer.

Wang blames Huaxi’s expansion for his problems. At the time, the village government unilaterally requisitioned large tracts of Sanyuxiang’s farmland and brought it under the group’s control. Although the government pays annual compensation to dispossessed residents, Wang’s family, who lost around 1,300 square meters of land, only receive annual compensation of 900 yuan. New factories and villas worth millions of yuan stand on the site. “We’re angry, but can’t do anything about it,” Wang says, adding that while most of his fellow villagers paid several hundred thousand yuan in savings to move into the group-built villas, his own family couldn’t afford to do so. Now, Wang still lives in his original run-down apartment with a leaky roof.

Cao Wei, a 30-year-old machine operator from what is now Huaxi No. 4 Village, echoes Wang’s sentiments. He says he worked for the group for five years but quit earlier this year after not receiving a promotion or pay raise during that time. “In the factory, their attitude toward you is different,” he says. “Local people seem to rank more highly than us.”

The group has a long history of strong-arming locals into going along with its business decisions. In the 1980s, village party secretary, Wu Renbao — who was also chief executive of the group — forbade families whose children worked outside the village from cashing in their dividends. The group also held back between 30% and 70% of employees’ salaries until the end of the year, an illegal practice designed to yoke employees to the conglomerate year-round.

Wu Renbao died in 2013, but some of these rules were only relaxed in 2017 after his son, Wu Xie’en, was elected to Wu Renbao’s former positions. Wu Xie’en rolled out long-awaited salary reforms, permitted “outstanding talent” from other parts of China to own up to 10% of the group’s total shares, and promised equal pay for equal work regardless of where workers came from. Wu Xie’en, who also sits on the group’s board of directors, hopes the reforms will draw high-quality workers to Huaxi and make the group more competitive. “In the past, Huaxi was a poor village with little native talent, so a lot of policies encouraged highly qualified people to come back here,” Wu Xie’en tells Sixth Tone in one of the group’s meeting rooms, a grand space with a chandelier hanging from the ceiling. “But now, talent must come first, no matter where it comes from.”

But years of aggressive, business-friendly policymaking has left other denizens of Greater Huaxi with deep scars: some emotional, some physical. Seventy-nine-year-old Cao Tongqing — perhaps a distant relation to Cao Wei, as many are in this small village — still lives in his family home in Huaxi No. 4. Cao Tongqing claims that the government previously offered to purchase his house for around 40,000 yuan — a rate of 300 yuan per square meter. “But I know that real estate in one of the group’s villas sells at 6,000 yuan per square meter,” he says. Cao Tongqing says he and his neighbors clashed with the group’s construction team several times last year, because they were building on farm land. In the ensuing chaos, his wife sustained a blow to the head and was taken to the hospital. “Those lands are our roots,” Cao says from the armchair where he now spends most of his days; a spell of illness years ago left his legs weak.

Wu Xie’en refutes Cao Tongqing’s claims and says that the village’s expansion will enrich all residents. “That’s just pure imagination,” he says with a leisurely smile, adding that the boundary change eased the financial burdens of many former outsiders. In 2016, Chinese media outlets made much of Wu Xie’en’s “Two Centennial Plan” to sustain Huaxi’s wealth creation for the next 50 years, in line with the national government’s policies of the same name. Part of the plan involves sending the adult children of Huaxi’s original residents to impoverished provinces to learn from local farmers — a rehash of the “Down to the Countryside” movement during China’s Cultural Revolution. Almost all the young participants Sixth Tone interviewed spoke in glowing terms of the plan and their village’s success.

Cao Tongqing, who grew up in the Mao era, remembers initial government-led policies to build socialism and experienced the real Cultural Revolution, doesn’t believe a word the group says. “Huaxi isn’t socialism — it’s a freak,” he exclaims, frowning and poking at the ground with his walking stick.

When other people ask if Wang, the former security guard, is from Huaxi, he lies and says he hails from his adopted city, Huashi. When he worked in the residential complex, he’d sometimes catch sight of the Long Wish Hotel, a 328-meter-high tower that was the eighth-tallest building in the world when it was built in 2012. Many core villagers lauded the soaring structure as a symbol of progress, but Wang thinks it represents empty wealth, gaudiness and arrogance. “I went all the way up to the top once when I worked there,” Wang says. “And you know what? You can barely see anything from the top.”

Red star fading

Among a parade of shops selling local delicacies, Zhao Mingxing’s business — the “Chinese Dream Red-Themed Museum” — stands out most. On the glass door is a stenciled image of Mao, deliberately positioned so that when the sun shines through it, the former chairman’s likeness appears on the inner wall. Zhao’s shelves are lined with all manner of communist paraphernalia, from Mao-shaped statues and busts, political posters from the 1950s and ’60s, and souvenirs engraved with the name of his hometown, Dazhai — a place synonymous in China with the pinnacle of socialist rural development.

In 1962, Dazhai, then a poor village in a barren, mountainous part of northern China, made national headlines when residents in its newly established people’s commune reported a bumper annual harvest of 385 kilograms of crops per mu — a traditional unit of measurement — making it four times the national average. (The actual yield may have been much lower, since government officials at the time often artificially inflated the figures.) The following year, Mao himself exhorted the nation to “Learn from Dazhai,” lauding the village’s supposed spirit of self-sacrifice as a cornerstone of the people’s-commune system.

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Zhao Mingxing poses for a photo in Dazhai, Shanxi province. Photo: Shi Yangkun/Sixth Tone

But political recognition was of little use when the rest of the country embraced the market economy in the 1980s. As towns and cities in other parts of China got richer, this former bastion of socialism woke up to the reality that it was just another remote rural village with little to offer the economy. “We worked so hard for 30 years, and then returned to pre-Liberation times practically overnight,” says 88-year-old former deputy village secretary Song Liying, referring to the period before Communist victory in the 1949 Chinese Civil War that many Chinese associate with extreme poverty.

In the end, Dazhai, too, adopted a collectivist business model as an antidote to its own stagnation. From 1991, when Guo Fenglian became the village’s Party secretary, Dazhai began developing Red tourism to revive its fortunes. Since 1995, Guo has spent 10 million yuan of public money on a memorial hall to Dazhai’s socialist past, a grand statue of former village party secretary and Chinese Vice Premier Chen Yonggui, and a “forest park” consisting of traditional terraced fields. Over the following decade, the park received over 2 million visitors, earning a total income of 30 million yuan. In 2009, Dazhai launched a travel company, and each of its 216 households were asked to invest 2,000 yuan in return for shares in the enterprise. By the end of the year, over 90% of Dazhai’s residents worked in tourism, running souvenir shops, restaurants or hotels in traditional cave dwellings. Today, 30% of the company’s annual revenue goes toward shareholders’ dividends.

National policy has also served Dazhai’s needs. In 2004, the National Development and Reform Commission published a five-year plan on developing China’s Red tourism industries, aiming to build 100 Red tourism spots by 2010. Dazhai, like Nanjie and Huaxi, was recognized as a provincial Red tourism spot, guaranteeing additional funding from the authorities.

Tourism has brought modest wealth to Dazhai. The industry is worth around 5 million yuan a year, and the number of annual visitors is increasing, making the village comparatively wealthier than others around it. But the industry’s seasonality makes tourism an inconsistent means of earning an income. On a cold November day, Zhao’s museum stands largely empty, with only one or two visitors. Zhao complains that he can barely make ends meet: “We don’t have many visitors in winter, but still have to pay for water, electricity and labor,” he says, adding that tickets cost 20 yuan apiece for adults, but children and the elderly usually go in for free.

Zhao, whose grandfather died in an accident while fixing the rice terraces that yielded those bumper harvests in the 1960s, worries that Dazhai’s star is fading. “People over 35 years old still know our name, but young people don’t,” he says. Visitors to the museum are mostly over 50 years old and are proud of — even nostalgic for — the hardships they experienced in their youth, Zhao says.

Red tourism has had variable results in Nanjie and Huaxi, too. The former is seeing gradual gains in tourist numbers, but in the latter village, visitor numbers have declined from a high of 2.5 million in the early 2010s — the exact date is unknown — to 1.5 million in 2017, according to current village secretary Wu Xie’en. Yet Huaxi’s successful businesses make the village far less reliant on visitors.

One afternoon in early November, Sixth Tone met An, a 65-year-old retiree from Beijing who was browsing the local delicacies at a souvenir store in Nanjie. In recent years, she and her husband have visited several Red-tourism sites around China, including Dazhai. “When I look at Nanjie and hear old Communist songs playing over the roadside loudspeakers, I feel very nostalgic. They take me back to the past,” An says, adding: “We were all educated to act on behalf of the collective and would do self-criticisms when we were too individualistic.” (Many older Chinese people recall self-criticisms as traumatic, even violent occasions when they were forced to beg the forgiveness of their peers.)

Times have changed, but An still finds herself drawn back to places that remind her of her youth. Her favorite place in Nanjie is a wall bearing a classical Chinese expression later utilized as a Communist Party slogan: “When every man is for himself, there is great disorder on earth.” When An saw the wall, she pulled out her smartphone and photographed it.

An sighs. “These days, everyone is selfish and only thinks about themselves,” she says. “Society lacks this collective spirit.”

This story has been corrected to reflect that Wu Renbao died in 2013, not 2003 as previously stated.

This story was originally published in Sixth Tone.

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