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Life in one of China's last communes

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A look at life inside the Chinese commune village of Nanjie

As China prepares to mark the 60th anniversary of Communist rule, the BBC's Michael Bristow takes a look at one of the country's few remaining communes, a hallmark of the early Communist regime.

In the village of Nanjie in northern China, workers begin the day by singing in praise of the country's former leader Mao Zedong.

More than three decades after his death, Chairman Mao is still remembered fondly across China, but in Nanjie he has a special significance.

The village is one of the country's last remaining communes, where workers still abide by many of the former chairman's principles.

Most communes were disbanded years ago as China's leaders began to turn the country's planned economy into one governed by the market.

But the Nanjie commune is still going strong, providing its residents with their daily needs. Few people want to see it disappear.

Economic disaster

Mother-of-one Hu Xinhe is one of the commune's 4,000 or so permanent residents.

"I feel very relaxed and secure living in Nanjie. Whether we're talking about work or life in general, I'm very satisfied," said the 34-year-old.

As China's Communist Party celebrates 60 years in power this week, it is emphasising the country's bright future.

Hotel reception at Nanjie commune's tourist hotel
Staff at the commune's tourist hotel wear military-style uniforms

But this commune is a reminder that some people think the past had much to offer.

Nanjie lies in the rural heartland of Henan province.

Villagers have just harvested their crop of corn, which is currently drying on roadsides and in open spaces around Nanjie.

The commune also has a number of small food-processing factories that make products such as beer, chocolate, hot sauce and noodles.

Some noodles are even sold abroad - to Australia, the US and Canada.

Collective ownership

But there are reminders that capitalist ventures are not the main goal.

A statue of Mao takes pride of place in the village square. It is flanked by giant posters of other communist revolutionaries, such as Lenin and Stalin.

With its clean and tidy streets, Nanjie looks well-ordered and pleasant.

Picture of Stalin at Nanjie commune
Giant posters of Communist heroes adorn the commune's main square

Communes were formed in the late 1950s as Chairman Mao tried to force rural people to live a more communist way of life.

Villagers had to pool their land, animals, tools and crops, and work for the collective.

In the early years, communes proved to be an economic disaster; they contributed to the deaths of millions of people through starvation between 1958-61.

They were finally abandoned in the early 1980s as villagers began to farm their own plots of land.

But a handful of communes - like the one in Nanjie - stayed as they were.

Wang Hongbin, the village's Communist Party secretary, said it had been the people themselves who had not wanted to disband the commune.

"They chose to have collective ownership. And if people want it, we - the party - have a responsibility to carry on with this system," he said.

Struggle to pay

In Nanjie, workers continue to toil for low wages, but in return are provided for in other ways by the commune.

"I earn about 400 yuan a month ($59; £37), but get very good welfare benefits," said Mrs Hu, who works as a quality control inspector in the village condiment factory.

"I get free medical care and housing - even gas, water and electricity are free."

Her son, nine-year-old Wang Haoyuan, also gets free education in the commune's schools. The collective will even pay for him to go to university.

Nanjie commune worker Hu Xinhe
Commune worker Hu Xinhe gets a range of benefits

It is this kind of security that makes life in Nanjie commune so attractive.

When China embarked on economic reforms in 1978, many benefits, particularly for China's farmers, disappeared.

They can now sell their own crops for profit, but some still struggle to pay school fees for their children or medical bills when they are sick.

Tens of millions of farmers have decided they cannot make ends meet and have left their villages to seek work in China's booming cities.

Uncertain future

Villagers who live near the Nanjie commune look on with envy at those inside.

One woman, surnamed Liu, said: "Living in Nanjie is so good - everything is supplied by the village. Although their salaries are low, they don't have to worry about other things.

"Our village doesn't give us many benefits, and I can't survive by farming alone."

Nanjie collective does have its critics, some of whom point out that it is not as communist as it makes out.

They claim the commune is in debt and does not treat its outside workers as well as it does permanent residents.

They also point out that it tries to trade on its communist credentials by encouraging tourists to visit.

There is a special hotel for visitors where workers wear military-style uniforms, presumably to reinforce the village's revolutionary history.

But while the commune may have its flaws, the people who live here say they genuinely believe in its aims.

At a time when the wealth gap between rich and poor is rising in China and life is uncertain for many, Nanjie offers the security and certainty of a bygone era.



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