Society

Maoist paradise

Inside China’s last commune

Serve the people: a recent contest of Mao lookalikes held in Hunan

There’s a small oasis in China where the unemployment rate is close to zero, inflation is negligible, and people generally seem immune from the ill-effects of the global economic slump. So, how did they do it?

Zhoujiazhuang – in Hebei province – is far from ordinary; it is the last of the once-thriving People’s Communes. Originally the brainchild of Mao Zedong, the first commune was established with the intention of mobilising peasants to make steel and overhaul agricultural production.

Following the disastrous Great Leap Forward and the country’s economic transformation, most came to view the commune as a relic of the past. So in the 1980s, People’s Communes were quietly replaced by townships. However, the steadfastly stubborn township at Zhoujiazhuang defied the trend and remains the last of its breed.

Amid the flailing economy, many are now looking to Zhoujiazhuang with envy. As unemployment mounts in China (the latest officialfigure is 4.6%), the 6,000 inhabitants in the commune all get to keep their jobs. Like a typical commune, residents are organised into work brigades, receiving assignment from their “captain”, who is selected by the Communist Party. Meanwhile, food is rationed; farming is a collective effort; and income is distributed evenly at the end of the year.

But the resemblance to Mao’s communes is not a complete one. The private sector, which was once banned, is encouraged today. According to People’s Daily, 5% of the inhabitants are engaged in private business – if they are willing to pay for the privilege.

Fan Hong, who has opened her own shop in town, told the paper that she makes about Rmb1,000 a month ($146); in return, she pays Rmb1,000 to the local government every year for being exempted from agricultural or industrial labour.

And yet, despite the “iron rice bowl,” the Chinese term for guaranteed job security, other residents of Zhoujiazhuang are not entirely happy. According to Ms. Wu (not her real name): “It’s not fair that the captain only arranges work for us and never does any work himself.”


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