NANJIE, China -- If Walt Disney's Epcot Center ever adds a "Mao World," it will probably look a lot like Nanjie, a surrealistic village where people live in identical apartments with the same ,, blond-wood coffee tables and 21-inch-screen TVs.
The villagers, who work in collectively owned factories, begin their mornings singing socialist songs, earn a paltry $7.50 for a seven-day work week and are forbidden to dance or hold hands in public.
Sound like hell? Li Guobing doesn't think so.
"I like the town," says Li, a 24-year-old salesman, who misses the paternalism and stability of China's old socialist system and cheerfully sings a few bars of the Cultural Revolution anthem, "The East is Red," upon request.
"When you arrive home from a business trip, the first question leaders ask you is not whether you have met your quota. Instead, they ask whether you need a rest or if you need a shower."
Two decades have passed since China began instituting market-oriented reforms and burying Mao Tse-tung's disastrous policies, but Nanjie won't let go.
While competition has vastly improved Chinese nationwide living standards, a widening income gap between rich and poor has also left many frustrated and bitter. Mixing elements of capitalism and socialism, the leaders of Nanjie want to prove they have the best of both worlds: profitability and equality. What makes this village of 3,100 in central China's Henan Province more intriguing, though, is that they might be succeeding.
Nanjie's economic figures look terrific. The village's net earnings from its 26 businesses and farming cooperative have risen nine-fold in the past decade to $7.2 million last year, officials say.
Nanjie may be just another Potemkin village, a socialist side-show backed by Beijing's dwindling number of hard-line Communists. Some who've studied it, though, don't think so.
"Nanjie's economic success is real," says Zhiyuan Cui, a professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has co-authored a book on the village. "We don't mean this is a model that everyone should follow, it's just an interesting case."
To appreciate how much China has changed since the late leader Deng Xiaoping began dismantling Mao's economic system 20 years ago, stroll along the spotless streets of Nanjie, a living time-capsule from the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution.
Most Chinese cities began taking down their statues of Mao in the early 1980s, but Nanjie built an 18-foot, white marble one in the center of town just five years ago. Two militia guards protect it round-the-clock beneath blinding flood lights.
Cultural Revolution-era posters, mostly found in antique markets Beijing these days, cover walls and billboards depicting freshly scrubbed young soldiers and model workers.
Cookie cutter atmosphere
With white, tile apartment buildings and sidewalks, Nanjie looks more like a prefabricated suburb than a peasant village. The controlled, antiseptic atmosphere can make for peculiar scenes: mid-day, local militiamen stand in empty intersections with drooping red and green signal flags waiting to direct non-existent traffic.
Villagers live rent-free in six-story apartment buildings laid out with identical furniture and a complimentary ceramic bust of Mao. Each household is evaluated on a 10-star scale. Categories include sharing property, cleanliness, discipline and thriftiness.
For each star, a family enjoys the kind of exorbitant social benefits that the Chinese government is trying to scrap for the country as a whole. They include free gas and electricity, medical care and kindergarten-through-college education.
Lose a star and you have to start buying things for yourself. Tong Pingan and his family lost one star for lack of cleanliness -- "We have two kids. It's not tidy enough," he says -- so they have to pay for their own flour at an albeit highly subsidized price.
Tong, 51, works as a sales manager for the various products Nanjie makes, including beer, instant noodles and chocolate cookies. He says he is happy to share the same lifestyle as everyone else. Turning capitalist logic on its head, he argues that inequality would lead to lower productivity.
"You would compare yourself with your neighbors," says Tong, as he rocks his 2-year-old grandson, Feifei, in his lap. "You would become jealous, so your mind would be distracted from work."
While people like Tong paint a utopian portrait of Nanjie, others find it repressive. In addition to its manageable size, the village owes some of its apparent success to the employment of more than 11,000 outside workers who may receive housing, but few of the other benefits residents enjoy.
Young worker unhappy
"They are like capitalists," says Huang Xiaohong, 18, who works at Nanjie's instant-noodle factory. "They exploit us outsiders. They pay us little, and once we make a little mistake, our salary will be docked."