SHENSHAN VILLAGE, China — Sharing snacks with a ruddy-faced farming couple as a portrait of Mao Zedong presides from their mantel. Pounding rice into a doughy holiday treat with a giant wooden mallet. Warmly shaking hands with an elderly woman as an enthusiastic crowd gathers.
Those were some of the images of President Xi Jinping as he swept into this village for his annual Lunar New Year pilgrimage to meet with ordinary Chinese.
The bucolic scenes, shown on Chinese state television, cast Mr. Xi as a paternal leader in the footsteps of Mao, at home with the rustic virtues that once made this mountainous region of southeast China a birthplace of the Communist Party’s rural revolution.
But those images conflict with contemporary reality here. Within days, this struggling community of 250 souls will be nearly empty.
“Our village is an empty nest village,” said Xiong Jifu, 63, a retired village bookkeeper, who said he lives alone while his son works 250 miles away. “This is a very, very hard problem. If you don’t go out to work, there’s no income for the family. If you all leave, there’s nobody left in the village.”
The contrast between the lyrical village life as seen on TV and the realities of rural social fragmentation is stark, even in this hamlet that was handpicked to greet China’s top leader. It is a pattern repeated across much of China, where many rural parents, children and grandparents often live scattered at great distances.
“Basically, rural society is in a state of collapse. Villagers come together only for the New Year,” said Zhang Ming, a historian at Renmin University in Beijing who has written widely about rural issues and politics. “Villages have become empty shells.”
While Communist Party leaders’ rural pilgrimages every Lunar New Year holiday are a staple of party propaganda, China’s recent economic slowdown has made rural life even more difficult, magnifying the mismatch between image and reality.
Mr. Xi’s hourlong visit was partly to promote his promises to lift more people out of poverty through local relief programs.
But villages like this one, whose terraced rice fields are crumbling from neglect, depend on the economy far beyond its borders. Remittances from the men and women who work in factories and menial jobs far away pay for new homes, televisions, refrigerators and other improvements here.
Villagers said that China’s slowed growth, especially in manufacturing and building, had hurt their confidence in the future. Factory shutdowns are a concern, many said.
“We’re worried about the factories,” said Peng Qinglian, a 43-year-old resident. He said he was jobless for six months last year when the auto parts factory where he worked in southern China closed. “The pressure was intense. I had to find work, and it was hard for month after month.”
The sunny portrayal of a village in crisis was just one of the ways Mr. Xi’s visit to this part of China was cast and choreographed to fit his zealous ideological agenda.
The village sits in the Jinggangshan region of Jiangxi Province, a place saturated with the Communist traditions that Mr. Xi has sought to revive. Jinggangshan was a base for embattled revolutionaries in the 1920s and 1930s, and party history credits it as the birthplace of Mao’s path to rural revolution, while airbrushing out the gruesome purges that tore apart the Jinggangshan uprising in the early 1930s.
Until Mr. Xi’s visit this month, Shenshan (the name means “spirit mountain”) Village nestled in obscurity in the hills above the monuments venerating Mao and the revolution. The village, reached by a one-lane concrete road winding two miles through bamboo and trees, was unknown even to many residents of the region.
Still, officials took care to ensure that Mr. Xi’s visit was free of any discord.
About a week before he arrived, security officers encamped here to check homes, weed out troublemakers, and, according to several villagers, tell people not to say anything “irresponsible” to an unnamed senior leader who would soon visit.
“We were told not to talk about bad things,” said Wu Guilan, a sprightly 67-year-old woman. “We wouldn’t dare say anything like that anyway. I was afraid it would look bad to say something about our own problems in front of so many people.”
One problem that she did not mention, for instance, was how the courts had failed to deliver promised compensation to her son after his wife was killed by a reckless driver in 2013.
“But we wouldn’t dare raise our personal problems,” said the son, Luo Linhui. “We can’t spoil a leader’s visit.”
Officials also blocked residents of the back part of the village, where dozens of members of the Hakka ethnic minority live, from glimpsing Mr. Xi, residents said. The Hakka have long had tensions with other people in this region, and there have been feuds over land and forests.
There was to be no risk of Mr. Xi seeing any such flare-ups.
“We weren’t allowed to go to see him,” said Lai Yuanlong, a 40-year-old Hakka farmer, leaning over a smoky wood fire in his drafty home. “Nobody here was on the list. But he’s also our leader.”
To be sure, many villagers said they admired Mr. Xi, especially for his stinging campaign against corruption and recent promises to eradicate poverty.
“He’s the emperor of 1.3 billion people,” said Mr. Xiong, the retired bookkeeper. “Without him, the problem of corruption would have kept getting worse and worse.”
After Mr. Xi’s visit, officials promised to expand the road into the village to lure more visitors.
Some tourists, led by guides excitedly recounting “Papa Xi’s” visit, have already appeared.
But Luo Lin’geng, a worker in a ceramics factory who had the privilege of briefly chatting with Mr. Xi about his life, said that Shenshan might become a ghost village before it benefits from its new fame and the attention of local officials.
“Now everyone knows about Shenshan Village,” he said. “But soon almost nobody will be here.”
Text: The New York Times by Chris Buckly FEB. 19, 2016