Over the last 30 years, most of China has increasingly embraced Western capitalism. But one town of 3,000 has firmly held onto the maoist model of China's past. Once a successful egalitarian community, Nanjie increasingly became an unlikely communist icon and an example of how the system could continue to work. At first, the government funnelled money into the town to ensure it maintained the facade of a successful egalitarian model. But as the rest of the country absorbed more capitalist practices, Nanjie's place shifted from being a symbol of success, to a time capsule and focal point of Maostalgia.
Today, the town still plays old communist theme songs on loop through its loudspeakers. It's become a tourist attraction for Chinese nationals interested in seeing how life used to be. Australian photographer Tim Fenby spent some time there this year and spoke to VICE about life in China's last communist village.
VICE: Hey Tim, tell me about the village.
Tim Fenby: It's this strange bubble within central China that feels like it's in opposition to the rest of the country. From what I saw, most of China is fairly loud and busy with advertising and neon signs everywhere. But when you walk into Nanjie, the streets are really wide, there are less cars, and as you walk into town everything just gets quieter.
Why has the town held onto this model?
It's a complicated story. Around 1989, when Tiananmen Square happened, a lot of China was moving towards some form of capitalism and privatization. At the time Nanjie was fairly successful economically, and a lot of the Chinese old guard—politicians and some military generals who didn't like the changes saw Nanjie as an example of a functional commune.
The town was already fairly left-leaning and into Maoism, so a lot of politicians started throwing money at it. In response, Nanjie began to move even more to the left as the rest of China slowly became more Westernized.
So they kind of became a last stand for the fading communist dream?
Yeah, they also started getting all these government loans. A quick look into the Nanjie story and it looks like a really successful egalitarian town. But look even slightly closer and you'll notice the success they had was equal to how many loans they received.
What did they do with the money flooding in?
The loans allowed them to build all these monuments. I read the other day that one of the town's leaders used millions of dollars from loans to try and build a perpetual motion machine.
That's amazing. Were those monuments key to Nanjie's transition into a tourist attraction?
Yeah, for outsiders like myself, it's a tourist attraction in the way I suppose Dubai will be in the future. All this money was present at one time, and it resulted in all these strange things. And those monuments are now starting to age, you can see in the photos, a lot of it looks really strange now.
But Chinese nationals go there to understand what communist life would have been like. Apparently, it does feel similar to how things used to be. People in China are seeking out this idealized concept of Maoist China, there's a lot of that in Nanjie. They have these communist theme songs playing over the loudspeakers throughout the day. It's actually kind of sweet. In a lot of ways, it's a pretty pleasant and charming town to be in.
We've focused a lot on the tourists, but what is it like for the locals to live in this aging diorama?
Well, in many ways the town is a bit of a lie. Chinese academics call it egalitarian, but that's kind of ignoring the fact that the majority of the workforce are migrant workers. They have to follow the town's strict laws without any of the benefits. They don't have their house, education, and food provided for them like the locals do.
Getting back to the massive loans they received, how are they dealing with paying them back?
The loans were never expected to be paid back. That was how the town was able to exist. I think in 2000 they had 23 companies, mostly factories, and three of them were profitable.
All things considered, it sounds like a sad place to live.
It's hard to tell how people feel but it seems like people are keeping a brave face. One night I went by myself to the town restaurant next to the hotel. A middle-aged local guy came up and invited me to sit with his group in another room. There were 10 men sitting around smoking, having this big banquet. They got me to taste all the different foods; showing off this big meal of all these dishes, and telling me how good they are.
Then, when I left, they gave me this locally produced pack of cigarettes and a bottle of local rice wine. They seemed really keen to show the town was working and was successful, even though it kind of isn't.
Interview by Wendy Syfret. Follow her on Twitter.