Red Ink Run: Mao Money, Mao Problems
They were halfway done resurfacing the road in the town of Linying. I say halfway because although the old road has been dug up and left in big dirt mounds on the side of the road, they haven’t gotten around to putting in any bitumen for a new one yet. It was the kind of thing I had long since come to expect in China — an almost pathological drive to tear up the old and make way for the new.
At the southern edge of Linying I was still navigating through these mounds of detritus when I saw that this half-trench, half-road intersected with a wide, clean, tree lined avenue. This avenue exhibited classic Soviet characteristics and looked more like Karl Marx Allee in Berlin than anything I had seen elsewhere in China. Straddling the avenue was a sign informing us that we were entering the town of Nanjiecun, the last Maoist collective in China.
Nanjiecun collectivised in 1980 about the same time when most other towns in China were beginning to run in the opposite direction and embracing the open market. Whether it is a legitimate, functioning collective or just a glorified theme park depends on interpreting some of the facts of its existence. On one hand the collective provides its members with free healthcare and education but on the other it relies heavily on migrant workers to fill out its workforce. These migrant workers are not part of the collective when means that Nanjiecun’s collectivised economy is bolstered by uncollectivised workers.
Furthermore these facts are sometimes difficult to accurately establish. Whether the collective’s economic model is working effectively is a salient question. This depends on the amount of debt the collective has. External estimates put the debt at $250 million while the local party secretary says the number is more like $15 million. Perhaps it is the mark of an authentic communist collective that the truth is evasive.
As we passed under the sign and entered Nanjiecun we were assaulted by three staccato impressions, the first was of space, the second of order and the third of quiet. Any of these three things alone were hard to find in China but here they all were together which combined to evoke the feeling of walking through an immense outdoor museum.
The day was exceptionally misty and, like a video game with the detail turned down, things began to appear piecemeal as we continued down the avenue: a park with exercise equipment in it; a series of Bauhaus low-rise office blocks; another sign over the road, this time with a portrait of Mao, rosy cheeked and wearing a slightly amused expression. Along the avenue were propaganda posters done in the Soviet realist style.
One pictured a group of workers. The ethnic minorities were represented in this group and they were smiling effusively perhaps at having finally put their differences aside, now united under international communism. We then entered a shop that we mistook to be a supermarket that was in fact a large and nearly empty refectory. I noted that the workers far outnumbered the customers.
We made our way down the road to Red Square, the centre of the town, where tinny speakers belt out some of Mao’s speeches and a large statue of the man stands on a pedestal in the centre, under 24 hour guard, his arm outstretched, in a Roman salute tilted slightly to the side. Mao is flanked by the portraits of the Gang of Four which lie on the periphery of the square, Marx and Engles to his left and Lenin and Stalin to his right.
On the other side of the square, a manmade rainbow (lit up at night) arches over an avenue in the background. When you stand directly in front of the statue, the rainbow provides the tyrant with a multi-coloured frame. This is clever and clearly an instance of having their cake and eating it too — they get to frame Mao with gaudy lights but because technically the rainbow is not within the square its marble white dignity is retained.
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