Tea Leaf Nation
The Communists that China Forgot
Not an hour from Beijing is a hard-core leftist's "utopia," free from modern Chinese materialism. Welcome to Righteous Path Farm Academy.
BEIJING – It’s not easy finding the Righteous Path. The nearest train station, a vast brick that rises alone from the flat and arid land, is almost empty of commuters. Dried husks litter the cornfields, ditches are awash with human garbage, and the nearest town in Dinxing county is an unpaved strip, mostly corrugated storefronts selling agricultural and food supplies.
But amid this unprepossessing rural landscape may be the fertile soil for a different kind of development — a spiritual movement that eschews the materialism many believe is rotting China from within, and celebrates simplicity, hard work, and communal living. The Zhengdao (“Righteous Path”) Farm Academy in Hebei province is only about a half-hour’s bullet ride from Beijing, but feels a world away from the desperately ambitious hype of the capital. On some 30 acres of farmland, lined with plastic greenhouses adjoining a large dormitory-cum-schoolhouse, students learn “not to focus on fame and wealth, not to care about life or death,” says the academy’s soft-spoken, 48-year-old founder Han Deqiang, an economics professor at Beihang University, an aeronautics school in Beijing. Pressed on whether the farm is more of a modern commune — areas where Mao Zedong collectivized Chinese peasants, with disastrous results — Han pauses. “It’s an experiment.”
The experiment is currently sponsored by an initial investment from Maoist sympathizers of roughly $150,000, and staffed by students. When Han opened the farm in April 2013, the students were initially from Beihang, but word soon spread to other nearby schools. Now, full-time volunteers and student dropouts often stay for a year, getting bed, board, and a monthly stipend of just under $100 to spend on what few goods there are to buy in these remote fields.
Among intellectual circles, Han is infamous as co-founder, with the activist Fan Jinggang, of the now-shuttered Utopia, a hard-left-leaning website whose notoriety came from sailing as far against the political winds as possible without sinking. In early 2012, government officials marched into the small bookshop Utopia runs in west Beijing and rebuked its owners for defending Bo Xilai, the revivalist party secretary of the metropolis of Chongqing, now serving a life sentence for corruption, bribery, and abuse of power. Although neo-Maoists such as Zhang Honglian have hailed a “golden period” for China’s leftists, there is still much anger among their ranks, and intense infighting as to how exactly they should grasp the nettle. (While the shop is still open, Utopia’s website remains blocked.)
Similar anxieties concern the direction of China’s youth, who have grown up in relative comfort, not “eating bitterness” like their forebears. The countryside is still trusted to offer a traditional remedy for modern Chinese woes, from food safety and pollution to crime, overcrowding, and Internet addiction. Some have sought to exploit this, with boot camps purporting to offer errant youths a cure of their appetite for addictive games like World of Warcraft through discipline and hard work. In fact, many simply offer a form of indentured servitude, like the “Happy Farm” in Shanghai exposed for selling its pupils’ produce to retirement homes. Parents sued another farm in Hunan after realizing their children were simply being exploited as unpaid labor.
Others, such as the Phoenix Hills Commune, an organic farm in northwest Beijing, focus on preserving “ancient culture,” something that Han also repeatedly stresses. But none do so with quite the ideological bent of Righteous Path, which cheerfully fuses Maoist precepts (education through labor!) and study of Confucius with Mao Zedong-thought characteristics, with up-to-date concerns about industrial farming, complete with signs abjuring the use of pesticides.
My visit in late March coincides with Dragon Head Raising Day on the farm, a lunar festival marking imminent rains and, it’s hoped, a bountiful harvest. Han adds his own flourish: “China is the dragon. Its head was low before — now it’s time to raise it.” The lunchtime festivities, which begin with a dragon dance before seguing into speeches, draw an odd crowd of perhaps 250 students, onlookers and locals, some of whom spent their morning watching a performance of Peking Opera, a popular form of singing from Beijing.
Such diversions are usually in short supply on the farm: No television is allowed. (Realizing the futility of trying to hold back modernity, Han allows smartphones.) The day’s further entertainment included a workshop or two and further talks — everyone is encouraged to keep a journal — before the 80 or so students found their way to single-sex dormitories and shared beds. The next day, they rose at around six for a tai chi session.
During breaks from picking strawberries and vegetables, and rearing the sheep, chicken and geese, students study Chinese classics, emphasizing continuity between the ancient teachings of Confucius, acolytes such as Mencius — up until Mao.
Anyone is free to wander down the Righteous Path, and one swaggering, black-clad youth, his expensive sunglasses signaling the playboy garb of China’s nouveau riche, sees the opportunity to steal some eggs and impress his otherwise-expressionless girlfriend. Most, however, are there to take a more respectful appreciation at what’s on offer. The 22-year-old Wu Yanting is browsing with a view to taking a year off, post-graduation, to see if she can learn more from fieldwork than being an office intern.
“Inner peace is something you can’t get elsewhere,” says Wu, a law student from Beijing’s North China University of Technology, standing beneath a giant billboard celebrating the legendary Maoist worker-soldier hero Lei Feng. In mainstream society, with its sink-or-swim entrance exams and ruthless office politics, “They only teach you how to compete and fight for your own interests.” This is not Wu’s first time at the farm. She has visited often with her best friend, who introduced herself as Ting — “It’s our way of growing up together” — and says that, although Mao is a “great figure in my mind,” she’s there to learn from simple tasks, like tending to the hens, rather than “the deep stuff.” Here, she says, “We learn how to ‘serve the people,’” she said, quoting a Maoist slogan, which debuted in 1944 and is still in use today. “Well, that’s the model.”
That model has a tortured antecedent, for those words evoke the anarchic 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution, when Mao diffused warring bands of youth known as Red Guards across the country to become “educated youth.” Instead, most saw their lives and educations derailed. One folk songs of the era paints a less-than-bucolic picture of life in the country: “You’re dead if you piss off the Secretary. You’ll get the heavy job if you piss off the Team Leader…. Your lunch is halved if you piss off the Security Guards.”
That bitterness remains. In a March 2012 press conference, then Premier Wen Jiabao took aim at the red-singing, Mao-praising Bo by warning that China faced another “historical tragedy” if it did not heed the lessons of the Cultural Revolution. Within days, Bo’s disgrace was official and he had disappeared into the internal machinery of Party discipline, not to be seen again until his trial in the summer of 2013.
Three years on, however, Bo’s ouster seems to have had little to do with ideology. Far from repudiating Mao and his Cultural Revolution, the stealthier President Xi Jinping has simply stepped into Bo’s suave yet down-to-earth princeling shoes and assumed the role of populist politician.
Originally a compromise choice, Xi has parlayed his diverse background to become both a kind of everyman and a supreme leader to the Chinese. Though no peasant himself, to hundreds of millions of rural residents Xi evokes his own rustication — to the central Chinese province of Shaanxi in the 1970s — to empathize with their difficulties; meanwhile his family credentials, as the son of Party founding father Xi Zhongxun, grant him first-among-equals status within the Communist elite. But no one seems quite sure if his ideological crackdowns (including the exhortation that artists should ignore markets to “serve the people and serve socialism,” along with plans to send them to “live among the masses” to “form a correct view on art,” something Bo also advocated) are political machinations — pressuring the intellectual class to fall in line — or Maoism. The two are hardly exclusive.
Among the youngsters at Righteous Path, there’s a cheerful lack of doubt or concern about all this. “We firmly embrace Uncle Xi,” says a rosy-cheeked canteen worker who didn’t offer her name, referring to the president’s popular sobriquet. “He and Chairman Mao both serve the people. Chairman Xi himself lived in the countryside for seven years.”
Han’s acolytes display the same boundless faith in him, although many others are zoning out as the Dragon Raising Head celebrations meander into their third hour. One by one, the students stand before the audience to discuss their “spiritual journeys,” praising Han as a leader, a father figure, someone who appears in people’s lives at critical moments to help point the way. One boy describes losing his father, then watching his mother suffer the slow ostracism of widowhood. A teacher fobbed him off with the admonition to “toughen up,” before he met Han. “Growing up with idealism in my heart,” he tells the dwindling throng of perhaps 150 onlookers, “is the best way to commemorate my father and honor my parents.”
Life at the Righteous Path Farm Academy is simple, but far from soft. Winter must be a particular hardship: The canteen is not much more than a plastic tent; the outhouse is built, literally, of twigs. But Xue Ruiwen, a senior studying at nearby Shijiazhuang College in the provincial capital, says there’s a big difference between this academy and the communes of Mao’s time. “We joined voluntarily,” she points out. “People participated at that time because the government required them to. They didn’t understand why, but simply trusted the leader at the time.”
Trust is a rare commodity today, even among fellow leftists. Some have given Han a cautious blessing, such as Guo Songmin, a Maoist former editor of the business monthly ChinaSOE who approvingly quoted Han after visiting the farm in Oct. 2013: “There’s no hope for revolution, and we don’t know when the reform will happen. The world isn’t going to change; I might as well create a new world, my own small ‘Utopia.’” Righteous Path has also won the approval of rowdy Peking University professor Kong Qingdong, a claimed descendant of Confucius, who has more than 2.8 million followers on China’s Twitter, Sina Weibo.
To hard-line Maoists, however, this hippy-ish “drop-out” camp hurts Han’s credibility. “Han worked on the farm for two years,” jeered a pseudonymous post, reprinted on the leftist site Progressive Youth. “But what he’s concluded is to deny Chairman Mao’s ‘Continuous revolution.’” By retreating from perpetual attacks on the ruling class to quietly raise strawberries on a farm, the article seemed to argue, Han had, in effect, sold out.
If he has, the profits of his organic fruits aren’t on show: Han wears glasses with an inconspicuous Mao-style jacket, and speaks about the need for self-respect (Maoists, according to Han, should look and act modestly). Yet this bookish fellow was also photographed slapping an 80-year-old man during a heated 2012 anti-Japanese rally for criticizing Mao. “That was in the spirit of the march! If I didn’t hit him, someone else would have,” Han chuckles. Not very Confucian, though, I venture. “That old man broke the rules first,” he fires back. “Chairman Mao is much older than him.” (Mao would be 121 years old if he were alive today.)
Part of the reason that people miss the Mao era is “because the wealth gap was not as big as now,” according to Zhao Zhikui, a research fellow at the Academy of Marxism under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a leading government research organization. The perception, at least, was that of a poor but egalitarian society, in which “everyone ate from the same big pot,” in former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s scornful phrase. In a 2013 poll on the relatively credible Hong Kong-based news portal iFeng.com, 60.5 percent of the roughly 10,000 respondents said they would “like to live in Mao’s era.” Asked, “Which of the following two societies would you prefer: Everything in your life provided by your work unit, in exchange for a loss of freedom; or plenty of freedom but having to fight for everything yourself?” a narrow majority, 51.5 percent, opted for the former. “Morality was at a high standard” during this period, 67.37 percent explained.
Reclaiming morality is a matter of participation, Han thinks. “The government doesn’t want people to get involved. When there’s more people involved, there’s less corruption,” he says. “That’s why, during the Cultural Revolution, Chairman Mao said everyone should be political.” Wasn’t the Cultural Revolution a devastating period for most people, a “spiritual holocaust” in the words of novelist and intellectual Ba Jin? “It was time of great prosperity, in terms of political thought…. Families would passionately argue about politics, just like during a U.S. presidential election.”
Left unspoken is the last time Chinese students attempted mass engagement with politics — which left as many as thousands dead and arrested in the crackdown on the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations. In the years since, as is often repeated, an unspoken “deal” evolved: Everyone would be allowed to get as rich as they pleased, so long as they left the party alone. The exchange — prosperity for politics — has been tested ever since, proving inadequate to either side. To the die-hard leftists, as China scholar Kerry Brown notes in a recent paper on modern Maoism, this was final capitulation to the capitalists, “bribing and seducing Chinese people with slightly improved living standards, while allowing a new elite to become obscenely rich.”
One wonders how someone like Han might fare in a democracy – if he’d be a politician, and if so, whether he’d end up the kind of harmless backbencher who’s content to serve his constituents or the Tea Party-style firebrand threatening to split his party. To his Politburo peers, Bo came to represent the latter and was punished heavily for it. For someone like Han to flourish in China, it’s a matter of keeping his principles while adjusting some of his methods.
In the face of an entrenched capitalist class, Han isn’t teaching his young followers to follow the lessons of the Cultural Revolution, where students regularly hit their teachers, smashed crockery, and engaged in endless class struggle but, in the words of one, learn “traditional culture and how we should be a good person.” Their peers know Mao as the face on every major banknote (on which he only appeared starting in 1999), while they have instead inhaled only the inspiration of the era, and none of the madness: they are not revolutionaries, but refuseniks.
The synthesis of classical texts with Mao Zedong Thought seems to be an attempt to reverse the damage of the Cultural Revolution, the moral vacuum it left and the shallow consumerism that took its place. “Buddhism and Confucianism are full of the spirit of serving the people,” Han says, skipping what happened to those ‘feudal’ beliefs with Mao to scold his legacy under Deng. “China has only extracted materialism and liberalism from the West, and none of the spiritualism,” he laments. “The Chinese have no limits. Most people are afraid of God — what are Chinese people afraid of?”
Image credit: Robert Foyle Hunwick