China's rural villages hardly the classless egalitarian paradise espoused by Mao

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A village boy blows bubbles in the Jiangxi province of China. (Photo by Mary Kay Magistad.)

Editor's Note: This is one part of a series of stories from PRI's The World examining global issues of class. For more stories on this topic, visit TheWorld.org.

The rolling hills and rivers of Jiangxi province’s Xunwu county are picturesque, but they only partially obscure the fact that this has long been one of the poorest places in China.

That’s why Mao Zedong came here for a month in 1930 — almost two decades before taking power. He came to the county seat, Chengning, which was then a dusty little village of about 1,500 people. He wanted to understand the problems and aspirations of villagers, and to see how the class system worked here.

The house where Mao stayed — its long wooden frame built by an American missionary — is now a museum. Visitors can gaze at the iron-frame twin bed where Mao slept, the desk where he worked, the long plank table where he sat and talked with locals. He met with farmers, merchants, local officials, an imperial scholar, even disaffected youth. He noted, in colorful detail, who felt oppressed by whom, how the classes interacted and how control of property was key to wealth and power.

Assisting Mao was a 24-year-old local named Gu Bo, the son and grandson of Mao's landlord. His family was renowned for sending many scholars over the centuries to serve the emperor. But Gu Bo wanted change.

“He thought the old system was unfair,” says his grand-nephew, Gu Anjiang, speaking from his village home. “Once he joined the Communist revolution, he burned down his grandfather’s house.”

Gu Anjiang chuckles affectionately. He’s now a wizened 74-year-old, retired after 40 years of serving as local village chief. He sits at a round table in his kitchen with his brother and son and nephew, while the women in the family prepare lunch.

He said Gu Bo and his brothers were all committed to revolutionary change in China. Four brothers were on the Long March with Mao. Three died. The fourth was the grandfather of the older men at the kitchen table. Gu Bo was killed, too, just a few years after working with Mao. He still believed Communism was the best way forward to transform and modernize China.

China’s Communist Party came to power promising to end China’s traditional class structure. As it turned out, it turned the class structure on its head. Scholars, landlords and merchants, the former privileged classes, were stripped of their privileges, and sometimes of their lives. Villagers and workers were, for a time, elevated, in status and opportunity.

But more than 60 years later, farmers and workers are again at the bottom of the heap. While there’s a growing middle class, China has one of the world’s biggest and fastest growing rates of income disparity. The privileged and wealthiest class are now made up largely of Party officials, their families and friends.

The Gu family shows what has and hasn’t changed in China’s class structure since Mao Zedong came here more than 80 years ago. The family used to have more than its share of imperial scholars. Today, none of the men here have gone beyond ninth grade.

Mao tried to abolish capitalism, but the village chief’s younger brother, Gu Anjia, did foreign trade in steel. He's defensive when asked what Gu Bo would have thought of his great-nephew making a career of capitalism.

“How would I know what he’d think? Anyway, it was a state-run trading company I worked for — at least at first,” he said.

But in China, being connected to the state, or even the Communist Party, doesn’t mean you’re not capitalist. More than 90 percent of China’s richest people are Party members. And state-owned enterprises control most of China’s wealth, because the system is skewed to favor them over private businesses.

Disgraced senior party leader Bo Xilai, former Communist Party chief of Chongqing, used the system to amass great wealth for his family, take down rivals, seize their wealth and sometimes execute them in the name of fighting crime and corruption. His wife stands accused of murdering a British businessman who reportedly helped the family transfer large sums overseas, and threatened to talk if he wasn’t paid more for his trouble.

China’s national anthem may exhort the downtrodden, “arise, those who refuse to be slaves,” but these days, those who want to get rich join the Party, and the Party wants the rich to join it. That way, wealth stays concentrated in the hands of its members, who’ll then have little incentive to change the system.

It seems to be working. The richest 70 members of China’s legislature, the National People’s Congress, have an average net worth of $1.2 billion. Each.

The Gu family is not in those ranks. It may have sacrificed its sons for the Revolution, but the family now lives a simple village life. The former village chief’s 36-year-old son, Gu Zisong, scoffs when asked if his family proud that their relative worked with Mao to try to make China more egalitarian:

“Pride? What pride? If there were any glory in it, we wouldn’t live here,” he said.

Gu Zisong makes his living growing oranges — a line of work that has helped pull many farmers in this area out of poverty, since it caught on seven or eight years ago. You can see their profits in the new concrete and brick houses rising up in the village.

Gu Zisong admits life here is better than when he was a kid. Back then, he says, the village consisted of mudbrick houses with no electricity or indoor plumbing, and dirt roads that turned to muck in the rain. Now, the roads are good, and most homes have refrigerators, TVs, even the occasional computer, which allows them to see that, their lives might have gotten better, but the elite in China are doing far better.

At the Gu kitchen table, family members include a former local official, a trader and a farmer — a lot like the classes of people Mao talked to while he was here in 1930. They seem surprised when asked if the class divide is still a problem for China.

“No, today’s China is different,” said Gu Zisong, the orange farmer. “There aren’t any classes anymore.”

His cousin added “today, it’s not exploitation. The people are rich.” He paused and thought a minute before modifying his statement.

“Actually — it’s hard to answer this,” he said.

It may be hard because Chinese, from their first days at school, learn that Mao abolished the class system. So, they figure, any inequalities that exist now — must be something else.

Another Gu has an easier time with the question. He’s down the street, where he runs a kindergarten.

Gu Yuesheng is 34. He was a migrant worker for five years, in a sweater factory in a city 250 miles away.

“I didn’t really like the city,” he said. “People looked down on migrant workers.”

He said workers were so underpaid and overworked that strikes and protests were common, even though independent trade unions in China are illegal.

“My own boss was OK,” Gu said. “But even in my factory, if you were a migrant worker, you could only move up so far. The good jobs went to local people.”

So, when Gu Yuesheng had made a bit of money, he came back and started his own sweater factory. At its peak, he said, it employed more than 120 villagers and produced four million sweaters a year. Most were sold to the United Arab Emirates and Hong Kong.

The factory had to close last year, when too many customers went too long without paying.

“It felt like falling off a cliff,” he said, shaking his head ruefully.

Still, Gu Yuesheng is proud of having helped his fellow villagers get a leg up, without having to go through the hardship and humiliation he did, as a migrant worker. His efforts have also pushed him nicely into China’s middle class.

It’s a mobility villagers here didn’t have at the time Mao visited.

But with wages and expectations rising, Gu Yuesheng doubts the next generation will find it as easy as it was for him, if they’re not educated. That’s what the kindergarten is about, he said – to help kids from this village get a head start, and learn to love learning.

Downstairs, one of the kindergarten teachers is singing her lesson of the day, and the kids join in enthusiastically. In another classroom, the teacher takes a more traditional approach — calling for the correct answer, and waiting for the kids to all recite it back to her, loudly, in unison. Most of the kids seem to be enjoying themselves, but Gu said these kids will need more than rote learning to thrive in an IT era.

Almost half of all Chinese are online, and most have mobile phones. An increasing number are moving to cities and entering the middle class.

“Without a good education, these kids won’t have a chance,” said Gu Yuesheng, who himself only got through middle school. “And even then, if you want to move from this village to join the middle class, you have to fight for your life.”

Miles down the road, back in the town where Mao stayed when it was just a village, orange farmers lost a fight for their livelihoods, when property developers with the right government contacts won the right to push them out. The village, Changning, is now a scrappy city of 100,000 people and growing. Luxury apartment towers are rising like mushrooms, next to a river where poor women still do laundry.

In one of the upscale complexes, Huang Quanfu, the general manager, is talking to a contractor. The complex is just across the river from a fancy new government building, lit up at night in gaudy multicolor splendor.

Huang is wary of unplanned visitors, but he’s happy to talk about his project.

“We’ve got almost 700 apartments, and we’ve sold most of them,” he said.

They go for almost $100,000 each. “We’ll be in profit when we sell 80 percent of them.” He’s confident he will. I ask if that’s optimistic, given that property prices are dropping in much of China, and that Xunwu is officially ranked as one of China’s poorest counties.

“It’s very realistic,” he said. “Almost every Xunwu farmer has orange trees. They make good money from those, and then move to town so their kids can get a good education. About one-third of the apartments we’ve already sold have gone to farmers, and there’ll be more moving to town, so their kids can get a better education.”

Even if there’s a temporary drop in property prices, he says, the trend is clear. China’s economy will keep growing, and people’s lives will get better.

The nearby villagers who lost their orange groves to developers, aren’t so sure. Luo Dingyuan, 66, who lives in a little courtyard house just up a hill from the new apartment complexes, says he used to have an acre of orange trees, which netted him a nice annual income. But then the government came and said they needed his land for development. It gave him $48,000 — not bad, given that most of the 30 million rural Chinese who have been evicted from their land in the name of development over the past dozen years got little or nothing.

Even in this area, another group of villagers near here was moved by force, locals say, with some 500 police coming in to clear them out. Luo Dingyuan could count himself lucky, but he doesn’t.

“The money might last 10 years — and then what?,” he said. “I only have a 2nd grade education. Farming is all I know, and now, I have no land left to farm.”

Luo’s five grown kids are off as migrant workers, but they barely make enough for themselves. His government pension is laughably small — about $8 a month. Meanwhile, he sees luxury apartments he’ll never be able to afford, rising where his orange grove used to be.

It’s not exactly what Mao had promised villagers here, about how the Communist Revolution would transform their lives and create an egalitarian society. Luo is old enough to remember when the Communist Party came to power. Actually, he says, it was never like that here in Changning.

“The central government was good but the local government made it a mess,” he said. “We watched the news and it told us the good policies made by the central government for the farmers. But when the policy was carried out locally it was different.”

Take the Great Famine of 1959-61, for instance. There was food, he says, but the local officials took it. If farmers tried to hide some food, so they could eat, the officials took that too. They’d reported inflated harvest figures to higher authorities, and were now being told to bring in the harvest.

Some 30 to 40 million Chinese starved to death in those years.

“I remember seeing bodies in the road, here,” he says. “Many people starved. Some tried to go outside the village to forage for food, and the local leaders would hold them back. But the local leaders had food. And then they forced us to work in mass production teams.

“Without food.”

He sits silently for a moment, thinking, before coming back to the present.

“And now, they’re busy expanding Changning,” he said. “It’s good for the city to grow, I guess. But what happens when they finish expanding, and stop construction? Where can we get jobs, since my land was taken? How can I live?”

Luo complains the local government doesn’t listen to complaints from simple farmers like him. He says they just listen to the bosses of these projects, who pay them off and make the profits.

“It’s not fair. We have no power, and have no choice but to accept our fate," he said.

Landlords, corrupt officials, underpaid workers, farmers on the short end of the stick. Sounds a lot like the old class system, doesn’t it?

“No, no,” Luo says. “Now, we don’t have classes in China.”

He pauses and stares ahead, shoulders hunched, tea mug cupped in his hands.

“At least – not like before.”

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