The taxi delivered us into the middle of The East Is Red Square. Portraits of the original gang of four: Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin, marked the corners and a great big statue of Mao dominated the centre. The Mandarin we heard broadcast was, on one level, indistinguishable from announcements on the subway. But on another, propaganda sounds like propaganda in any language.
We’d come to visit Nanjiecun, China’s last surviving Maoist collective, which we called Maoville. It’s still red as can be, though the rest of China is ideologically grey at best, and more honestly whatever colour unbridled capitalism is.
Workers who live in the village get most of their dues in kind: housing, food rations, even clothing are all directly provided by the state. Socialist signs and sayings are everywhere. One, I understand, translates like this: “A drop of water only needs to be part of a great ocean to never dry up; a person can only have his greatest strength when part of a collective body.”
The streets were wide and the showcase buildings had a kind of austere socialist beauty. But Maoville was lacking the kind of proletarian hubbub you might expect from a working commune. The signs pointed to noodle factories, but there were none that we could find. The most industry we saw was from street cleaners and the warehouse we peered into was filled with sacks. The emptiness of the scene verged on post-apocalyptic. Living in the town seems no more popular in China than the ideology it represents is in the West.
Images of Mao were everywhere, but there were signs that even this last of the communes developed in his name was tiring. Since our guidebook was printed the attendants in the supermarket have stopped wearing revolutionary guard uniforms. They sold us Chips Ahoy cookies and Sprite. Since the signage in the town was written the armed guards for the central Mao statue have forsaken their posts. A road lined with factories seemed to now only be used by kids learning Tae Kwan Doe.
We couldn’t find somewhere to eat in Maoville, so we had to make a trip to ‘real China’ for lunch. It was an easy stroll across a plaza incongruously named for one of the democratic leaders in China’s pre-Mao republic. Outside its gate we were first struck by the larger number of people around, including plenty who would sell us noodles. Later we realised it had commercial advertising where Maoville had political propaganda.
We walked back past a primary school with a pretty neat playground, and a college with a real deal running track. It was about 4pm and I wondered whether the work day had ended because groups of friends lingered on apartment stoops or crowded around small tables playing cards. I won’t call it idyllic, but there are certainly tougher places in China to live.
It was one of the most immensely frustrating times not to be able to communicate in Chinese. There were so many questions I wanted to ask: I get that you guys can idolise Marx a bit, but Stalin? Really, do you know what he did? Have you been to the big city and did you get to try KFC? Do you resent new China’s new wealth, would you like some of it for yourself? We left without answers to these questions, just a slightly faltering display of the Maoist ideal. That was certainly worth our trip, though.
Catching a bus back to the more established tourist trail, we wondered how Maoville can survive as an ideological island under its own steam. Turns out it can’t. The community has been supported by hundreds of millions of dollars of loans from Chinese banks, approved by senior members of the Communist Party, which it has seemingly no ability to pay back.