Wong How Man
Garcho, Tibet - 10 July 2010

During the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China, the People’s Commune was hailed as the epitome of a society model. Entrance with signage to local government“People’s Commune is Good” was a political slogan that ruled the day. I came to China early enough (1974) to have visited many communes, from large ones like the Red Star Commune outside of Beijing, to small ones like the Three-Eight Commune in the countryside of rural Guangdong, deriving its name from its earlier market days of 3 and 8 of the monthly calendar.

But such exposure to the social fabric of China’s more “progressive” days has long become tiny threads of memory. Ever since Deng Xiaoping unleashed his economic reforms in 1979, and subsequent distribution of land to its tillers in the countryside, the communes have become a word of the past, existing only in history books. I thought the once-revered practice of co-operatives had disappeared altogether. That is, until I visited the most remote part of northern Tibet on a recent expedition.

When Qiren, a local official, told me China’s last remaining people’s commune was nearby, I could hardly believe my ears. When he reaffirmed his statement, corroborated by his assistant, my eyes widened. Auju, Chief of the Garcho Commune in northern Tibet“It is along the way where you wanted to go observe wildlife, just 60 kilometers from here,” Qiren said. My team and I were at Sheunghu, or Twin Lakes District of the Changtang plateau, deep inside the heartland of Tibet. Our next stop, quite naturally, was Garcho Commune.

“How old are you?” I asked Auju, the commune chief. “Twenty-nine,” he answered with a tone of confidence as if that was a mature age. Auju is originally from Lhasa and has been here for three years as head of the co-operative, still known by everyone as a People’s Commune. But in the corridor of this modest single-storied government building, I see a number of similar age youngsters hanging around, each wearing a name tag over a ribbon on their chest. All of them came from Lhasa, educated youth working as volunteers here. Maybe for the new generation, living and being associated with a commune carries an aura of romance, not unlike today’s Che Guevara followers who try to uphold the icon of international revolution 40 years after his death.

This is what happened at Garcho, according to Auju. Between 1980 and 1982, all of China was going through major changes. Communes were broken down as land and ownership of every production means was becoming privatized, with the exception of large-scale industry and state enterprises. Medical center at GarchoFarmers received their plot of land and herders their livestock with associated grazing pastures. The impact reached far and wide into every corner of the country, including even distant communities of Tibet.

When it was Garcho Commune’s turn, like elsewhere it went through a democratic process of a community vote for the disintegration of their previous structure. Surprisingly an overwhelming majority of the families (over 70%) voted to keep to the co-operative-based commune as it had existed since its inception on their migration into the region in 1974. As a result, Garcho stayed as a People’s Commune with the same collective and administrative structure, though by then the politically celebrated revolutionary committee was abolished, and policies and decisions were left to an elected committee, today with five representatives. This last commune, something archaic even within communist terms, was able to survive to this day. Two years ago, to fully legalize their communal existence, Garcho registered itself as an agricultural nomadic cooperative unit with their higher government political prefecture at Naqu. However within this commune few vestiges remain of its traditional political overtone.

The commune ledger tracking economic data“We have two villages, 101 households, 516 persons of whom 395 are counted as labor with average per capita income of 5,924 yuan of which 4,322 is cash, a total of 32,614 livestock, 43 students in two classes, four teachers who are all university or higher institution graduates, seven medical personnel of which three are university grads with one local traditional Tibetan doctor, and no monk,” Auju said, reciting numbers and demographics not unlike party secretaries of revolutionary committees of earlier days. He also produced charts and data of production results and collectively-owned production implements in a large black folder-like book, just to show me how records are kept and economic data tracked. I nodded dutifully as if impressed before turning my attention to other matters.

I asked Auji the moste essential question: Why did the people vote to stay together as a commune? He noted that at such high elevation - an average altitude of 5,000 meters and this village standing at 4,800 meters - the climate is extreme. Everything existing is marginal. Any major upset, such as a severe snowstorm or other calamities in the summer, could wipe out the commune’s livestock and other provisions. Collectively, commune members have a much better chance of survival than do families trying to maintain single independent units. Shepherd of Garcho Commune with his sheepHe noted it is not unusual to have some form of natural disaster in nine out of ten years.

“All the production work, and labor, reward are calculated based on a point system, similar to how communes were run in the old days throughout the country. Retirees, men at 68 and women 65, are given 500 extra points per month, redeemable as 300 renminbi. No family is considered a poor household. All medical costs are covered by the commune,” Auju explained.

He admitted that despite some obvious advantages, workers under a communal system tend to have less initiative because of the lack of economic rewards. The distribution system, though seemingly fair, cannot provide as much impetus for economic advancement and progress as a fully privatized structure can. Everything has to be collectively planned and agreed upon before implementation. “We have 100% student enrollment rate. Not only education is free, up to fourth grade, we actually pay each family an incentive for sending their kids to school,” Auju said proudly. He urged me to visit the school with 43 students, 16 of whom came from Village Two some distance away. All room and board is provided free of charge. Commune members have another unique source of pride: The village has no police or police station as all disputes can be settled through collective discussion, arbitration, and negotiation.

“Our biggest problems these days are water and power,” lamented Auju. “The huge lake near the village, it is all salty. Only seasonal streams provide fresh water we need, and in the winter we haul chunks of ice from the river to supply us. Modern-day devices of wind and solar power plus satellite receptionAs with power, it is gradually solved as a few windmills and solar panels recently installed have replaced the diesel generator,” he added.

Seeing the satellite TV antenna outside in the courtyard, I asked whether the World Cup was a big hit here. “Not at all, no one watches soccer. We only tune into Tibet Channel One of Lhasa,” Auju said. The courtyards as well as the streets are exceptionally clean and spotless, unlike other Tibetan villages where each household has refuse and junk left in its front or back yard as well as common area.

As we drove off into the distant hills, we made a stop at a nomad’s camp with two yak-hair tents. Inside it was exceptionally orderly and clean, unlike other nomad’s tents I have visited. After visiting with two ladies tending to their sheep and yak herds, I tried to negotiate to buy some utilitarian objects for our artifact collection. They agreed to sell a used and worn wool blanket for 130 yuan, and a hand-woven salt pouch together with a sling for driving livestock for 20 yuan. When I saw some finer blankets and two yak-hair saddle bags, the ladies did not want to sell, saying those items were communal property. No matter how I tried to persuade them by offering higher prices, they simply would not budge. It turned out they took collective ownership of material assets extremely seriously.

As I walked out of the tent, I caught a glimpse of a small Mao button attached to an old jacket hanging on a pole. At 4,800 meters elevation, Garcho is closer to heaven. And if Mao were to look down from heaven, he may have a smile on his face, knowing that his creation of the People’s Commune stood the test of time, even 35 years after his death in this most distant corner of the Tibetan plateau.