Model village of Mao seeks to catch up

November 26, 1992|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau

DAZHAI, China -- Once world famous for its Maoist zeal and collective achievements, this desolate north China village is finding it hard to travel China's new quasi-capitalist road.

It's not that Dazhai hasn't tried to make a buck. It's just that the village's initial forays into China's brave new world of free-market economics seem to have been ill-conceived from the start.

The village built an antibiotics factory in 1988. Raw materials for production had to be imported from elsewhere in China. There was no nearby market for its antibiotics. The plant closed this year.

Undaunted, Dazhai recently plunged into a venture with a building materials company from another province. The village's partner gouged it with excessive fees. This part of China doesn't use the plant's product, glazed roof tiles. This factory, too, shut down.

"We are trying our best to change," says Guo Fenglian, Dazhai's Communist Party secretary. "But we've found it's difficult to transfer from a traditional socialist system to a market economy. People here have traditional minds, old minds. They don't understand what to do."

If Dazhai's more than 500 residents are confused about China's recently accelerated thrust toward senior leader Deng Xiaoping's "socialist market economy," it is entirely understandable.

From 1964 to 1979, Dazhai was China's national model commune for Mao Tse-tung's radical collectivism.

Parked in a mountain gully in an isolated corner of hardscrabble Shanxi Province about 225 miles southwest of Beijing, the village drew hundreds of thousands of visitors a year, from China and abroad. They came here to absorb its revolutionary lessons of self-reliance, hard struggle and egalitarianism. Ms. Guo, then just a young peasant girl, gained fame as an "iron maiden" of Maoism as she rose within the village's leadership.

Today, the Chinese Communist Party has not only long forsaken Maoism but even endorsed capitalist ways in the name of fulfilling Mr. Deng's vision of "socialism with Chinese characteristics."

Rather than respect, Dazhai's name now provokes ironic smiles among many urban Chinese who recall it as an irrelevant bit of trivia from the painful decade of the Cultural Revolution.

The still impoverished village has been left far behind by coastal China's spectacular economic boom of the 1980s. Ms. Guo is 45 now. She has discarded the drab uniform of a Maoist cadre for smart clothes and a permed coiffure as she travels around China desperately trying to learn how to turn Dazhai's farmers into rural entrepreneurs.

On the surface, Dazhai's and Ms. Guo's dramatically different tack these days reflects the sweeping political transformation that China has undergone in the last 14 years of Mr. Deng's economic reforms.

At the same time, the village's enduring poverty illustrates the vast gap between large sections of inland China and the much-publicized economic miracle taking place in its coastal regions. Inland Chinese farmers' income averages 60 percent of that of their eastern counterparts.

Dazhai today belies the impression that all of China has quickly shed its collective shackles for free-wheeling, Western-style capitalism. Its story shows that -- while coastal China may be far ahead of the Chinese leadership's rhetoric in Beijing -- grass-roots changes in the rest of this vast land often come at a much slower pace.

Mao ordained Dazhai as China's first model commune in 1964, when the village refused government aid after being destroyed by a flood. From then until Mr. Deng came to power in the late 1970s, China's propaganda mill raised the village into a nationally worshiped icon.

Dazhai villagers supposedly toiled in its terraced corn fields every day of the year from before sunrise to after sunset, followed by three hours of political study. The purported production gains from their collective labor could not be outstripped by any other place in China.

Everyone in Dazhai, it was said, ate from "one big iron pot." Wristwatches and leather shoes were forbidden as bourgeois. Individual enterprise was condemned as "a tail of capitalism" in endless campaigns carrying out Mao's notion of continuing social revolution.

All of China first was told: "In agriculture, learn from Dazhai." Then even more absurdly, Dazhai's lessons were to be applied to every Chinese endeavor. The village's top leader, Chen Yonggui, an illiterate laborer given to wearing a white towel around his head as a turban, rocketed to national leadership as one of China's vice premiers.

But then Mao died in 1976, and Mr. Deng began his economic reforms by again allowing Chinese peasants to till private plots and engage in small-scale enterprises. Dazhai plummeted into disgrace.

In the early 1980s, the Chinese press attacked Dazhai's legend as fiercely -- and some now claim as dishonestly -- as it had promoted the village.

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