By Alexander Witherspoon
Top picture: A view of Haoxi village from a tower in the temple complex.
Setting the Stage
The following report is mainly the product of fieldwork undertaken by Cody Hartsburg, Wang Xuecheng, and Alexander Witherspoon in December 2018. The initial meeting between these three researchers and village leaders took place on December 3rd. Unless marked otherwise, all information in this report was gathered from the interviews that Wang, Witherspoon, and Hartsburg conducted in Haoxi village on December 3rd and 4th 2018. It is the hope of the author and his fellow researchers that this report will be accessible for interested students and activists living abroad. Please use and disseminate this report however you see fit.
Two floors below Jinyun County’s high-speed rail station, a clandestine meeting took place. At the appointed time, five men entered a black car with government plates. The first to arrive were two local village officials. They were followed by a state-employed genetics researcher, and finally two foreign visitors. Once all together, declarations of faith in collectivization, Marxism-Leninism, and a number of smaller ideological points rung out. Everyone was eager to prove that they were sitting in that car for the same reason: to make Haoxi village’s progress in re-collectivization better known to communists within China and abroad. Having established this much, an initially tense and suspicious mood gave way to casual conversation.
This atmosphere carried over into lunch at a nearby restaurant. There, each of the five men introduced themselves. Wang Xuecheng, the public researcher, stated that he had spent thirty years working on cultivating intelligence in children, specifically through Lysenko-style gene improvement(1). Although still on the government payroll for such research, Wang said that he has ceased work on that subject, focusing now on political theory and philosophy. He frequently contributes to Maoist-leaning blogs and has made at least two prior trips to collectivized villages.
Zheng Lijian, the local party secretary and the main actor in this story, disagreed a few times with Wang’s comments about the importance of communist ideals and collectivist morality. He presented himself purely as a man of action. Despite a few pronouncements about the happiness of the North Korean people, Zheng repeatedly expressed to the author of this paper that he has little interest in theoretical discourse. He is a proud Cadillac owner who has invested the last six years and more than 25 million RMB into the collectivization of Haoxi village. He is also one of the Jinyun officials that penned a 2016 Declaration calling for grassroots leaders to defend collective property rights. In the years since this declaration, it has been Zheng Lijian’s unwavering leadership and capital resources which have been the critical force behind the now all but complete collectivization of his jurisdiction, Haoxi.
Both Zheng Lijian and Wang Xuecheng are significant participants in the movement to rebuild collectives in the Chinese countryside. They are also capable teachers. Through one extended interview and three casual meals, Zheng shared a wide range of experiences regarding his village’s efforts in re-collectivization. He provided the perspective of village leadership, whereas Wang helped to uncover the views of regular villagers. By way of two tours, one guided and one unguided, Wang Xuecheng questioned villagers regarding their personal histories and feelings on the collective. Both the writer of this paper and his companion on this tour, Cody Hartsburg, are deeply in these two men’s debt.
Zheng Yongchuan, the village chief, has a vital role in the village but had little involvement in the making of this report. He said very little on the three occasions that he and the writer of this paper were in the same room together. Nor was he or his projects the subject of discussion by others. However, it became known to the author that he is a leader in a private corporation, splitting his time between the village and the city. Although he stated his support for collectivization and seconded many of Lijian’s opinions, he is even less interested in Marxist thought than Zheng Lijian, going so far as to laugh at Wang’s characterization of socialist ethics on one occasion. He was not the kind of man that the investigators expected to meet on their trip.
The two foreign visitors mentioned above were Cody Hartsburg and Alex Witherspoon, who are respectively natives of Canada and the United States. Both men work in China and were involved in communist organizations in their home countries prior to moving to China. Sharing similar interests and beliefs, they initiated and arranged these interviews after seeing discussion of Lijian’s re-collectivization efforts online.
Before The Collective
The village now called Haoxi got its name after Communist victory in 1949. According to an elderly villager surnamed Li, the newly-named village was extremely poor at that time. During the land reform that followed liberation, only one of Haoxi’s several hundred households was classified as part of the “middle peasantry,” with everyone else falling into the category of poor peasantry or lower(2). According to official reckoning, there were no “affluent” peasants, landlords, merchants, or industrial workers. Furthermore, there were not any local political forces which opposed the land reform of the Communist regime at this time. The village passed into Socialism peacefully.
Old Li can still remember the village evolution through all the famous phases of the Mao Zedong era. Among his earliest memories are Haoxi village’s absorption into the local People’s Commune and villagers’ division into work teams. At that time, new houses were built, and a central mess hall was constructed. This rural development was, in Li’s assessment, the greatest accomplishment of the Mao era. The following “Three Hard Years” brought difficulty, but not famine to the area. Li, although still a young boy at the time, had already begun to help his parents in farm labor. Later, during the Cultural Revolution, a teenaged Li participated in the Red Guards movement, taking part in raids on the homes of village officials and the burning of objects considered counter-revolutionary. A photograph of his grandfather, who had a past association with the Guomindang, was burned in the course the movement. Li later left the village, and joined the army, working a number of posts before finally retiring a few years ago.
For all of Li’s life, Haoxi village has been economically backwards. Although factories and shopping centers have been constructed in nearby villages, Haoxi remains primarily agricultural. Around 300 mu(3) (49.42 acres) of cropland survived the reform era, a figure which is dismally small considering that the village now has over 1600 estimated residents, most of which are farmers. During the Mao era land reform, 10 mu of land was considered enough for a peasant household’s minimal subsidence. Divided equally between the village’s 687 households, Haoxi’s cropland now amounts to less than 0.5 mu per family. Many Haoxi natives have joined the mass migration of Chinese peasants to urban centers due to the lack of farmable land or employment opportunities in the village.
Origins of the Collective
Zheng Lijian was one of the country youths who left the countryside in search of opportunity. He was lucky enough actually to find it, and by the mid-2000’s he had himself become successful in business. Rather than relish in being a titan of industry, he instead turned his attention homeward. He was disturbed by the number of his male colleagues in the village who were still bachelors. Not only did these men lack wives, but many also lacked the material gains that Zheng and others have enjoyed during China’s “Reform and Opening Up.” According to Zheng, seeing men of equal intelligence and moral character excluded from China’s development is what first sparked his interest in collective economics.
At the same time he was starting his research, Chinese officials were debating whether or not to abandon collective land rights altogether. Legally, almost all land in China, especially rural land, belongs to the state. Individuals only have usufruct over certain sections of the land, which theoretically must return to collective ownership after a specific period. Typically, this period is set at 70 years. However, since the 17th Plenary Session of the CCP, central leadership has clarified these norms. They did so by clearly delineating the boundaries and ownership of rural plots, expanding the use rights for farmers without outright stating that the land has been given over to private hands. According to drafts of the upcoming 2020 revision of China’s Civil Code, time restrictions for usufruct over residential homes will be overturned altogether. Homeowners will soon be able to pass down ownership indefinitely, effectively legalizing real estate inheritance. Erosions such as these to the legal framework of collective land ownership have been stacking up over China’s last few administrations.
Against the apparently state-sanctioned push towards privatization, several rural villages have chosen to double down on collective enterprises. Among the more than fifty collectivized villages that Wang Xuecheng estimates are active in China, Nanjie and Huaxi are the most famous. They merit some brief discussion:
Nanjie village, which began re-collectivization in 1986, has become a domestic leader in food processing, despite having no private enterprises, advertisements, or housing. In place of once abundant farmland, dozens of factories have been constructed, making the village an industrial hub in what is otherwise a rural area. These businesses fund a comprehensive social safety net that includes “free” healthcare, housing, utilities, elder care, and education for everyone who was born in the village. They are further distinguished for their continued commitment to the ideology and aesthetics of the cultural revolution. Portraits of communist leaders surround the main gate of the village, while “red songs” and Mao’s life story are played over loudspeakers daily(4). Unsurprisingly, this unique environment brings thousands of visitors every year, generating substantial extra income for the village.
Tourists go to Huaxi village for very different reasons. The leadership there has fully embraced the culture and official ideology of the reform era, while still operating an extremely successful, multi-industry, collectively-owned enterprise. They collaborate in the production of everything from textiles to aluminium, with a variety of private and public partners. Thanks to many savvy investments made under the leadership of Wu Renbao and his children, Huaxi has indisputably become China’s most affluent village, with the personal wealth of all core villagers now long exceeding 100,000 USD. Tourists go there to see the village’s skyscraper, luxury cars, mansions and other trappings of the good life.
Despite these accomplishments, the reputation of these villages is mixed. Many portray the Nanjie village as a failed Maoist project kept afloat only by stubborn leadership, bank loans, and the tourism that the village’s savvy marketing team brings in. Articles from Southern People Weeklyand Vice represent this position. Huaxi village has received an equal measure of criticism in the media. The large amount of debt that the village’s enterprises have accumulated in recent years has been criticized multiple times by outlets such as the Shanxi Media Network. Other sources, such as Sixth Tone, criticize Huaxi and Nanjie alike for the inequality that exists between core village residents and migrant laborers. The two key points of inequality usually detailed are the substantially lower income and restricted access to the social services that migrant workers receive in comparison with core villagers. These blemishes are rarely the focus of official government assessments. On state-owned television(5) or in writings printed in government papers(6), Huaxi and Nanjie are acknowledged for their accomplishments in poverty reduction and market integration, but not usually set forth as a model for development.
Penning the Proposal
Regardless of controversy in the press, Nanjie and Huaxi helped inspire Haoxi village’s turn towards re-collectivization. In 2016, citing these two villages and others as examples of successful collective management, Zheng Lijian and seventeen other cadres in Jinyun County called for a new generation of collectivization. They circulated a formal proposal within the party and leftist circles at large. In it, they declared that reform-era policies were generally unsuccessful at alleviating rural poverty, let alone rural inequality. Also mentioned in the proposal was the move by central leadership to clearly delimitate land usership between private households, which seemed to the proposal’s authors to be a direct threat against collective land rights. In response to these concerns, they felt that a revitalization of collective economic management had become warranted. The proposal articulated three propositions:
1. “Firmly grasp the correct direction of innovating rural land management system.” This includes maintaining collective land ownership as a legal right and developing cooperative enterprises, as promoted by Xi Jinping in certain speeches.
2. “Adhere to the principle of democratic centralism by which the minority is subordinate to the majority.” This is accomplished by developing and expanding collective and cooperative enterprises in accordance with the material conditions and will of a given community.
3. “Implement the policy of membership (for rural households) under the system of collectivized land ownership.” This is to be done by the clarification of the relationship between rural households and the government such that local level officials have the power to organize rational land use effectively.(7)
These three propositions were met with mixed reactions. Many local cadres, according to Zheng Lijian, endorsed the proposal. Additionally, a number of domestic political activists and party leaders working in other collective enterprises reached out to the proposal’s authors. Support, however, ended there. Although a limited discussion of the proposal has occurred on internet forums and Maoist-leaning blogs, coverage in the official media has been minimal and generally luke warm. Behind the scenes, according to Zheng Lijian and another cadre, there were rebuffs from official leadership and no concrete moves to meet the three propositions.
Of the eighteen cadres who listed their positions and contact information, only three responded to our inquiries in September and October of 2018. One hung up after the author of this paper explained what he was planning to do, another told him to call off on account of central government opposition to the 2016 proposal, and the third was Zheng Lijian, the central author of the proposal and main participant in our interviews.
Developing the Collective
At the time the 2016 Proposal was being written, Zheng Lijian was already in his fifth year of organizing Haoxi village’s collectivization. This has broadly been accomplished through three channels: the village government, a commercial cooperative, and private companies associated with Zheng Lijian and the village chief, Zheng Chuanyong. The former has been used to initiate public campaigns and utilize land; the cooperative is a vehicle for villagers’ economic activities, which include a farmer’s market and tourist site; the companies are a source of capital. Due to the contemporary Chinese fiscal policy, banks do not recognize or give loans to collectivized villages. The companies that Lijian and Chuanyong possess are, however, viewed as attractive candidates for all manner of financial assistance. This makes for a tenuous interplay between public and private organizations.
What is important to note here is that there is formally no single institution referred to as a collective or commune in Haoxi. Historically, “People’s Communes” were rural units of socio-economic organization that facilitated all of the economic and political activities of rural districts. They had decisive authority over all the economic activity and land use agreements that were organized between sub-organization such as production brigades and production units. Now, over thirty years after the breakup of the People’s Communes, the only legal path for collectivization in villages like Haoxi is a nebulous organization of institutions which have no official relation or commitment to collective projects, such as local leadership has achieved here. This has concerning implications: if something happens to the leadership that connects all of these groups, Haoxi’s collectivization effort could end abruptly. There is nothing legally binding the synergy of these economic and political organizations.
It is essential to keep the precarious and unsanctioned nature of the entire effort in mind while assessing the progress of collective projects discussed below.
Modern housing was a pillar of rural development during the Mao era. Now, many houses in the village that date from that period (or as far back as the Qing Dynasty) have been marked in spray paint with a single character, “demolish”(拆). The residents in these homes are themselves the would-be vandals, painting this character verifies the consent of residents in the building’s demolition. Once every tenet of a given complex paints the character on their door, confirming their consent, demolition will proceed under the coordination of the village government. So long as every tenet wishes to remain in the village and pools their land rights in with the village, they will have the opportunity to move into one of the village’s newly built apartment blocks.
Back in 2016, the same year that the proposal was written, work on the first collectively-owned apartment block was still underway. Now, two blocks have been completed, and several more buildings are in the midst of construction. Villagers who have opted to join the collective have gotten to split the costs with the local government on the construction and installation of utilities that include electricity, modern plumbing, and internet. The latter two amenities are still not universal in Haoxi and many other rural villages. Below are some pictures documenting both the new and pre-existing housing.
Scholarships are offered for gifted students in the village. Students who pass the entrance exam into the Jinyun County High School can receive 1000 RMB in scholarships, those who can test into “first tier” colleges receive 2000 RMB, whereas students completing master’s or doctorate programs may receive 4000 and 8000 RMB respectively. Although there have so far not been any PhD candidates from Haoxi village, students at every other level have already been awarded scholarships. Although still far from the full-rides that students from Nanjie village can receive, 2000 RMB could cover a semester of tuition at many Chinese universities, whereas 8000 RMB might be sufficient for an entire year of grad school. These scholarships are a first but valuable step. Going forward, the collective’s educational services will include a free early-education/child care center as well as increased scholarships. Along with these rising benefits, Zheng Lijian hopes to raise expectations on the village’s students. Starting in 2019, community service, be it within or outside of the village, will be a mandatory prerequisite for scholarship recipients.
For the elderly, several collective services are rendered. Collective birthdays are arranged for around 370 village residents aged 60 and up. These are designed to combat the loneliness and depression all too common among China’s rural elders. Residents aged eighty and above receive a small stipend as well as the community outreach. 200 RMB is annually awarded to each 80+ plus resident, 500 for 90+ residents and 1000 for centenarians. Few live long enough to be awarded all of these stipends; however, each senior in the village has free access to the recreation center, which includes a library, ping pong tables, and ample seats for chatting. Thanks to the efforts of village leadership, Haoxi’s elders enjoy a community and material standard of living unavailable to many throughout rural China.
The beautification of the countryside has become a pillar of China’s rural development strategy since at least the Hu Jintao administration. Consequently, cadres all over China have been paying special attention to waste management. In Haoxi village, this policy effort is reflected through periodic inspection tours. Village authorities routinely evaluate households participating in the collective. Those households which receive full marks on the evaluation are rewarded with a stipend of several hundred RMB, which is updated periodically; those who at least refrain from dumping their trash along the street are given a small stipend, while the few who fail the inspection are fined. These sanitation inspections are neither designed or mandated by higher authorities, making them an example of the collective’s genuine independent management.
Collective medical care is one of the goals of village leadership. Presently, the village informally organizes villagers to pitch in any expensive medical bills that residents might accumulate. Zheng Lijian told the story of one successful case where this arrangement allowed for a villager to pay for a 200,000 RMB operation. Despite such successes, this sort of mutual aid remains casual and purely voluntary. It is in no way exclusive to collectivized villages. Over the next couple of years, the goal is to replace this arrangement with a formal collective medical fund. Under this new system, the village will cover 70% of whatever the government will not cover. Also, since public health insurance is typically expected to cover 70% of large medical expenses, individual villagers would only be expected to cover 9% of whatever the original medical bill was after the state and village collective covered their respective shares. By participating in such a scheme, a 200,000 copay could be brought down to just 60,000, a figure that Zheng Lijian is confident most villagers could cover between loans, savings, and family contribution. If realized, this medical fund would represent a serious advancement towards the kind of social safety nets that exist in villages like Nanjie or Huaxi.
Weaknesses in Collective Services
Membership in the collective has not been extended to everyone. According to Zheng Lijian, nine of the village’s 687 households have voluntarily refused to join the collective. On our unguided tour of the village, we met an older woman from one of these abstaining households. Her reasons for not joining were simple: she wanted to build a strictly personal house on the land that is legally under her family’s stewardship. Another villager we met, who had joined the collective, pointed out a related issue. He claimed that housing and social services were preferentially given to households that joined the collective first, disincentivizing those who are still outside the collective now from joining. The author of this paper has yet to receive clarification on this second issue from the village’s officials. However, of the twenty plus villagers that we spoke to, only these two offered criticism. Inadequacies in the social safety net were not reflected in villager’s comments towards the collective.
Migrant workers, by contrast, are in a very different situation from village residents. As with Nanjie and Huaxi, migrant workers are a source of contention in Haoxi village. Workers from as nearby as the surrounding villages or as far away as Guizhou or Yunnan, reside in the village. Some have stalls at the farmers market, others work in nearby factories, and some even do construction work for the village. All of them are permitted to rent rooms or houses in the village, but none can get access to any of the village’s collective services. Additionally, wages for them, unlike for village officials, are “set by the market.” Zheng Lijian views migrant workers as a negative social influence on the community. Beyond the simple fact that Haoxi has enough poverty and unskilled labor to go around, the village’s growing incidence of illicit drug use has been associated with the influx of migrants. Four or five known drugs addicts, in Zheng Lijian’s view, already represent an alarmingly high figure for this part of the country. With this in mind, there are currently no plans to make collective services open to migrant workers.
Land use is another contentious issue. The organizer’s general plan, as told by Zheng Lijian and Zheng Chuanyong, includes the following projects:
- Maintain the farmer’s market
- Convert the collectively-owned crop land into organic cash crops.
- Promote the village as a tourist site
- Start new enterprises via collaboration with other villages.
These four projects aim to create sustainable income for the village. Among them, the farmer’s market is the best established. It includes dozens of stalls, operated by a combination of local and outside producers. Unlike other aspects of the village, this market has been opened to migrant workers, as evidenced by a Guizhou snack stand ran by several migrants and several vegetable stalls ran by families from nearby villages. All vendors, local or not, pay annual fees to the cooperative organized by the village. According to one vendor at the site, this fee is set by vote at an annual meeting of all vendors.
Some of the local products at the market include rice cakes, pork, dog meat, and wild rice (“jiaobai”). Not to be confused with traditional white rice, wild rice is a rarely consumed grain that is often marketed for its superior nutritional content. Alongside the compliance of all farmers to produce according to organic standards, this crop is part of the village leadership’s plan to use their limited land to produce high-profit healthy food. The realization of this vision is so far limited. Clear guidelines for organic production have not yet been enforced by the village, nor have vegetable gardens for individual consumption disappeared. Progress on this front, admits Zheng Lijian, has been slowed by on and off opposition from the farmers themselves. This all means that effective collective use of the village’s agricultural land is still incomplete.
More progress has been achieved when it comes to making the village more attractive to tourists. A recreation center, two fishing ponds, and a refurbished temple complex are all open to residents and tourists alike. The recreation center is always free, whereas the temple’s pagoda and the fishing ponds are not exclusively free. Summer camp-like activities are arranged at these sites during the warmer months, where tourists from across the province go to enjoy the relatively untouched natural environment there. Projects currently under construction include a road connecting the village to the main stretch of highway, a secondary recreation facility, and a refurbished ancestral hall for the Zheng clan, which is dominant in the area. Zheng Lijian additionally expressed the desire to build “red culture” monuments including a quotation from Xi Jinping and a depiction of Liu Hulan. All of these projects have provided employment for local villagers.
Zheng Lijian has visited dozens of other rural districts, participated in conferences with other collectivized villages, and is now engaged with other villages interested in collectivization to start joint enterprises. One such hypothetical enterprise would include a food processing plant and large-scale organic farm. The idea would be to have a land-rich village take on management of crop production, whereas Haoxi village would handle the processing of these products into brand-name health foods. Haoxi village would take responsibility for the majority of the investment, asking no more than 1/5 of the profit these enterprises make in return. Whatever may grow out of these engagements, no actual businesses or income have taken shape yet.
The Haoxi Collective, if we may take the liberty to call it that, is a pale ghost of the People’s Communes that once defined the Chinese countryside. Direct democracy appears to be limited to the farmer’s market where independent vendors pocket most of the money; the market determines wages for those who work in collective projects; social services are partial and not open to every resident in the village. Most concerning of all, the patronage of a few wealthy officials remains a critical source of income for the village. These facts point to the conclusion that re-collectivization in Haoxi is neither complete nor stable.
However, the accomplishments of Haoxi village are sufficient to call it a rallying point for the collectivist movement and China’s new left. The village leadership succeeded in following the example of Nanjie village and others in undoing the “division of fields among households,” building collectively-owned housing and enterprises all while still achieving real material benefits for villages along the way. They did all of this within the law and without once contradicting the ideological boundaries of the Xi Jinping administration. As Haoxi village continues to expand its range of economic activities and involvement in collectivist movement, its prestige should only grow. With that, Zheng Lijian hopes, sooner or later, official recognition and support will be granted to them and similar villages. The author of this article shares that hope.
1. Lysenko was a Soviet biologist who was famous for his work in biology and agriculture. He was outspoken in his rejection of Mendel’s genetics Darwinian evolution, positing that a plant or animal develops traits in the course of its life that can be passed onto their children genetically. Although now widely abandoned even in Marxist-Leninist circles, Wang’s research still borrows from Lysenko. His work specifically focused on improving personality and cognitive traits in children through altering the habits and lifestyles of their parents: “My investigation has found that marriage and procreation people who engage in hard physical labor such as movers, construction workers, fisherman, as well as professional athletes and sport enthusiasts, have an often results in physically robust offspring; marriage and procreation between people that are in engaged in intellectually demanding hobbies or work, such as scientific research, design, or teaching, often results in highly intelligent offspring.” .
2. Similar to how peasants were classified in the Soviet Union, Chinese researchers and authorities divided farmers into various stratums, primarily landlords, rich peasants, middle peasants, middle-lower peasants, poor peasants. During Land Reform and the Cultural Revolution these designations took on special importance with regard to land distribution, promotion within the Party, and one’s social status.
3. Although officials in Haoxi consistently estimated their cropland at 300 mu during the author’s visit, online government statistics list the village’s cropland at 90+ mu, with an additional 200 mu of forest land also present.
4. Alex Witherspoon, the author of this paper and his companion Cody Hartsburg, visited Nanjie Village for two days in July of 2018. Zheng Lijian visited Nanjie village for a conference in September of the same year.
5. See CCTV新科动漫《文化中国》’s 《不忘初心南街村》 or CCTV 2 《深度财经》’s 《理想主义的日子 – 南街村》, as well as CCTV 7 《美丽中国乡村行》’s 《华西村寻牛》.
6. See for instance Renmin Ribao’s 2012 article 《让农民更好生活》or 2018 article 《共同富裕之路，我们永不会变》, as well as Henan Ribao’s 2016 article《发扬傻子精神乐于贡献》.
7. This is an original translation created by the author. A copy of the original text can be found on the Mao Zedong Tieba
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About the author
Alexander Witherspoon was born in Hawaii to a set of non-Hawaiian parents, where he grew up in a fairly normal lower-middle class household. In spite of this, he went on to enroll at the controversial alma mater of a former horticulture teacher, the Evergreen State College, in 2014. While there, Alexander has been both politically and academically active. He has presented papers at two research conferences, spent six months in Shanghai on an exchange program, and once had the pleasure of barricading a door during a student protest. Since completing the Bachelor of Arts program in 2017, he has worked and lived in China, dividing his time between research on Chinese rural development, a full-time recruitment job, and a side gig selling tea from small-scale producers. In the coming years, he hopes to pursue his research as part of a Master’s program.