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Retro Communes: China's New Utopia?

At Nanjie Village in China's Henan Province, the people own everything... and nothing at all.

Nanjie, along with the rest of China, began dismantling its communes during the early 1980s. But the reforms didn't seem to be working. So between 1985 and 1990, the village organized farmers to re-collectivize their land and property.

The furniture and appliances in each home are identical, including the big red clocks with Chairman Mao's head radiating psychedelic colors to the tune "The East Is Red." Huang Zunxian owns virtually nothing in his apartment. The possessions are owned by the collective, right down to the couch cushions.

Huang says the village gives him 30 percent of his income in cash -- a total of $32 a month. The other 70 percent is all benefits: free food and housing, cradle-to-grave health care and education. Nobody here has cars or money in the bank. But Huang says he's content.

Welfare benefits are based on a points system. Village committees regularly inspect homes and award points based on compliance with behavioral goals: obedience to the communist party; cleanliness; respect for one's elders.

Some describe Nanjie as a utopia, free of inequality and exploitation. That's an attractive idea in a country struggling with massive income disparities. Some villages around the country have followed Nanjie's example and re-collectivized.

But there are costs involved with the transformation. Wang Hongbin, has been the local communist party secretary since 1977. The village borrowed the equivalent of $150 million in loans from out of state banks in order to industrialize. Wang says the village has not yet repaid the loans.

And cracks in Nanjie's confident facade are showing. The village's annual economic output has declined by nearly a quarter in recent years. Fierce competition has caused the partial shutdown of several village factories. And at least one corruption scandal has marred the leadership's credibility.

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Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.