Episode 4 of the Transformation of Shenzhen Villages focuses on Nanling Village, which became famous throughout the country as the “争气村 (hardworking village)”.
Nanling’s [Shenzhen] story begins in 1979 with the last mass exodus of Baoan economic refugees to Hong Kong. That day, Shaxi Brigade [Nanling’s collective predecessor] Vice Secretary Zhang Weiji came home to discover that his wife had joined several hundred other villagers who had decided to make the run for Hong Kong. Zhang Weiji went to the border and called for his wife and fellow villagers to return home with him. One of the runners looked over his shoulder and shouted, “Even after I’m dead my ashes won’t return to this place.” In the end, 50 villagers and his wife returned with Zhang Weiji to what had become another of Baoan’s ghost villages. The secretary vowed to transform Nanling into a village where people would stay and live out decent lives. Over the next decade, Nanling became one of China’s most important symbols of Reform and Opening as a means of achieving rural urbanization. Indeed, both Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao have visited the village on inspection tours to promote and confirm Nanling as a model for other village urbanization projects.
Nanling interests for several reasons. First, the Brigade was located in Buji Commune [today Buji Precinct, Longgang District], which meant that at the time of reform it was on the neidi side of the second line. Consequently, Nanling did not benefit from the Shen Kong investments and construction wave that Yumin Village (episode 3) rode to wealth. Instead, Nanling signed its first factory contract with a radio factory from Heping County, Hebei province. Thus, Nanling benefited from an “interior connection (内联)” contract, rather than from external investment in the SEZ. In fact, Nanling’s focus on “interior connections” was one of the primary strategies that Shenzhen’s villages used to industrialize because after the establishment of the SEZ the villages had privileges that neidi cities and provinces did not; the villages could manufacture for export.
Second, Zhang Weiji began this enterprise legally, obtaining a permit to open an electronics factory. Unlike Anhui and Sichuan, where villagers began reforms without authorization and leaders took a “open one eye, close the other (开一只眼，闭一只眼)” attitude to infractions of socialist law, Nanling has made a point of doing everything by the book. Indeed, the village is famous not only simply for the wealth that it enjoys, but also for the relative transparency of the process. Indeed, Nanling’s relative transparency made it one of the fastest growing villages in New Baoan County.
Third, Nanling Village developed as a village. Its earliest goals were: to provide villagers with enough to eat, money to spend, new homes, and a long healthy life. In 1983, when the Central Government dissolved communes and brigades into market towns and villages, Nanling Village was one of first to hold publicly acknowledged elections for village leader positions. Villagers were given a sheet of paper and asked to write the name of the villager they thought would be most accountable to them. Moreover, at each stage of Nanling’s development the village operated as a legal person, building factories and borrowing capital as a unit, which in turn shaped how the village incorporated and stock options in Nanling Limited were eventually distributed.
In these three important senses Nanling has been a “model village”. Moreover, the villages “model” status was confirmed and deployed through the Chinese propaganda apparatus. The level and type of documentation about Nanling continues Maoist information campaigns, not only telling the village’s history, but offering the village as an exemplar of rural urbanization for the entire country. Indeed, throughout Episode 4, Zhang Weiji and Nanling villagers affirm and are shown to live the righteousness of Reform and Opening policies. Rural urbanization in Nanling was identified with correct and proper “socialism”.
And herein lays Nanling’s importance to Reform and Opening as a political movement: “the village overcame poverty without any of the problems of wealth (穷时有穷志气，富时没有富毛病),” holding conferences that investigated the question, “what is a farmer?” The answer: “A farmer doesn’t forget their nature. And what is their nature? To work hard.” Thus, Nanling Incorporated distributed profits and dividends based on how much a villager worked. Village entertainment included organizing villagers to read together in the village library and opening night schools for village wives who had not graduated from Middle School. Moreover, Nanling Village has made a point of providing basic level social welfare for migrant workers, issuing medical cards for Nanling hospital and allowing migrant children to attend Nanling schools.
Nanling’s story inspires me. Nevertheless, the ease with which the Party has incorporated the village into its narrative of Reform triumphant worries me because Nanling is not an exemplar in the sense of “represents the general situation”, but rather an exemplar in the sense of “unique”. Moreover, the extent to which Nanling’s experience might be reproduced elsewhere depends not only on economic opportunities that no longer exist, but also on the willingness of leaders to put the welfare of the entire public ahead of their personal and familial interests.