China: What happened to Mao's revolution?

Women washing clothes in river against backdrop of new apartment blocks
Image caption Today's Changning: women wash clothes in the river against a backdrop of luxury apartment blocks being built

No-one in China is lower in the pecking order than farmers and villagers. When they migrate to cities to work in factories, they often live in squalor. So what happened to Mao Zedong's communist revolution which was supposed to improve the lot of the rural poor?

The rolling hills and rivers of Jiangxi province's Xunwu county in south-west China are picturesque, but this has long been one of the poorest places in the country.

Image caption The simple iron-frame bed where Mao slept is now a tourist attraction

That's why Mao Zedong came here for a month in 1930 - almost two decades before taking power. He visited the county seat, Changning, which was then a dusty little village of about 1,500 people, to see how the class system worked here.

The house where Mao stayed is now a museum. Visitors can gaze at the iron-frame bed where Mao slept, the desk where he worked, and the long table where he sat and talked with locals.

Mao met farmers, merchants, local officials, an imperial scholar, even disaffected youth. He noted, in colourful detail, who felt oppressed by whom, how the classes interacted, and how control of property was key to wealth and power.

Image caption Mao's book about his visit to Xunwu, translated into english

Assisting Mao was a 24-year-old local named Gu Bo, the grandson of landowners. His family was renowned for sending many scholars over the centuries to serve the emperor. But Gu Bo wanted change.

"He thought the old system was unfair," says his grand-nephew, Gu Anjian, who lives in a village near Changning. "So once he joined the Communist revolution, he burned down his grandfather's house."

Gu Anjian chuckles affectionately. He's now a wizened 74-year-old, retired after serving 40 years as chief of his village. He sits at a round table in his kitchen with his brother, son and nephew, while the women in the family prepare lunch. ( See a slideshow comparing scenes from Xunwu county with modern Beijing ).

He says Gu Bo and his brothers were all committed to revolutionary change in China. Four brothers went on the Long March with Mao. Three died. Gu Bo was killed in 1935 in an ambush, just a few years after working with Mao, believing that Communism was the best way forward to modernise China.

Image caption Gu Anjian (centre) at the tomb of his revolutionary ancestor, Gu Bo

China's Communist Party came to power promising to end the country's traditional class structure. As it turned out, it turned the class structure on its head. Scholars, landowners and merchants, the former privileged classes, were stripped of their rights, and sometimes of their lives. Villagers and workers were, for a time, elevated, in status and opportunity.

More than 60 years on, farmers and workers are again at the bottom of the heap, and while there's a growing middle class, China has one of the world's biggest and fastest-growing rates of income disparity.

The fortunes of the Gu family illustrate what's changed in China's class structure since Mao Zedong came here more than 80 years ago.

The family used to have more than its share of imperial scholars. Today, none of the Gu men at the kitchen table stayed in school beyond the age of 15.

Image caption Gu Anjian (left) with his family in Qinyuan village, Xunwu county, Jiangxi province

Mao tried to abolish capitalism, but Gu Anjian's younger brother, Gu Anjia, is a keen capitalist: he traded steel abroad. I ask him what he thinks Gu Bo would have thought of him forging a career in capitalism.

"How would I know what he'd think?," he says, a little defensively. "Anyway, it was a state-run trading company I worked for - at least at first."

Image caption What kind of social mobility can this child in Qinyuan village look forward to?

But in China, being connected to the state, or the Communist Party, doesn't mean you're not capitalist. More than 90% of China's richest people are Party members, according to the Hurun Report, which tracks the country's wealthy .

China's national anthem may exhort the downtrodden, "arise, those who refuse to be slaves," but these days, those who want to get rich join the Party, and the Party wants the rich to join it. That way, wealth stays concentrated in the hands of its members, who have little incentive to change the system.

The richest 75 members of China's legislature, the National People's Congress, have an average net worth of $1.2bn.

The Gu family is not in those ranks. It may have sacrificed its sons for the Revolution, but the family now lives a simple village life. Gu Anjian's 36-year-old son, Gu Zisong, scoffs when I ask if the family is proud that their relative worked with Mao to try to make China more egalitarian.

"Pride? What pride? If there were any glory in it, we wouldn't live here," he says.

Gu Zisong makes his living growing oranges - a line of work that has helped pull many farmers in this area out of poverty, since it caught on seven or eight years ago. You can see their profits in the new concrete and brick houses rising up in the village.

Gu Zisong admits life here is better than when he was a child. Back then, he says, the village consisted of mudbrick houses with no electricity or indoor plumbing, and dirt roads that turned to muck in the rain. Now, the roads are good, and most homes have refrigerators, TVs, even the occasional computer - which allows them to see that their lives might have got better - but the elite in China are doing far better still.

Another member of the family, Gu Yuesheng, 34, runs a kindergarten down the street. He started out as a migrant worker, in a sweater factory in the city of Dongguan, 250 miles away.

"I didn't really like the city," he says. "People looked down on migrant workers." He says workers were so underpaid and overworked that strikes and protests were common, even though independent trade unions in China are illegal.

"My own boss was ok," Gu says. "But even in my factory, if you were a migrant worker, you could only move up so far. The good jobs went to local people."

Image caption Gu Yuesheng was a migrant worker, but now runs this kindergarten

So, when Gu Yuesheng had made a bit of money, he came back here, and started his own sweater factory. At its peak, he says, it employed more than 120 fellow villagers, and produced four million sweaters a year. The factory had to close last year, when too many foreign customers went too long without paying.

"It felt like falling off a cliff," he says, shaking his head ruefully.

Still, Gu Yuesheng is proud of having helped his fellow villagers get a leg up, without having to go through the hardship and humiliation he experienced as a migrant worker. His efforts have also pushed him nicely into China's middle class. It's a mobility villagers here didn't have at the time Mao visited.

But with wages and expectations rising, Gu Yuesheng doubts the next generation will find it as easy as it was for him, if they're not educated. That's what the kindergarten is about, he says - to help children from this village get a head start.

Listen to more on this story atPRI's The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, Public Radio International, and WGBH in Boston.

This story is one of a series called'Beyond Class: Societies in Flux' about changing class structures around the world.