NANLIU, China — Nobody has seen the village chief.
Just months ago, his courtyard home at the edge of the orchard was a makeshift trading floor where local farmers gathered to share tips and track the Shanghai Composite. Now, the gates are closed, a security camera stands watch, and nobody wants to talk about the stock-trading local party secretary.
“Out for the whole day,” ventured a neighbor.
“Who?” said another.
“Maybe he flew away in a plane,” joked a third.
It is a scene playing out across China. This spring, the country was gripped by stock fever, a frenzy of borrowing and buying that saw Chinese markets soar to historic heights, drawing in tens of millions of first-time investors, including dozens of people in this northern Chinese village.
The rally was bolstered by rah-rah editorials in the state-controlled press. Invoking President Xi Jinping’s vision for a powerful and prosperous China, the People’s Daily called rising stock prices “carriers of the China dream.” When the benchmark index hit 4000 points, an editorial in the same party flagship promised it was “just the beginning” of the bull run.
But the bulls would soon retreat, taking with them that official confidence. After trying — and failing — to prop up the market through July, the state has faded from view. The morning after “Black Monday,” the 8.5 percent slide that sent global markets sinking this past week, the People’s Daily led with a rosy report on Tibet.
Now investors across the country are left wondering how what seemed like a sure thing so quickly turned into a suck on their life savings — and what the party leaders many trust might do about it.
And so it is in Nanliu. Nicknamed “China’s stock trading village” at the height of the boom, the small farming community about a two-hour drive from Xi’an attracted attention from the local and international media, relishing its moment in the spotlight and a rare bit of good luck.
Old-timers in Nanliu have known war, famine and revolution, and note, gratefully, that things are getting better by the year. Young people leave to find work in the city, sending home enough money for new clothing, smartphones and two-story homes.
But farming is tough, unstable work, and many here still struggle. By the time this year’s rush began, Nanliu was home to a handful of small-time investors trying to supplement what they earn on the land. The number swelled dramatically after the rise of the benchmark index sent stories of fast fortunes spreading through the fields and the local leader got involved.
Nan Xinglao, 64, a retired village schoolteacher who with his wife, Wang Caiwa, 62, tends a crop of apple trees, corn and wheat, followed the market for months before opening a trading account, wary about losing what he had saved from his modest salary, and their 10 mu (1.6 acre) plot.
Nan was nervous, but tempted: Farming was hard on the body, and he longed for a chance to use his mind. A word from the village chief, a distant relation, convinced him that the time was right. The chief, he heard, knew about stocks — he would learn the rest.
Ignoring the protests of his wife, Nan invested 80,000 RMB ($12,500), about half of what they had saved over the years. Like millions of other first-time investors, he saw quick results and doubled down, borrowing money from his sister, his two children and a couple of friends, so he would not miss out, he said.
The rhythm of the market fit well with village life. Farmers tended their fields in the early morning, then gathered inside to follow the market action while the sun was high, popping back out after the close. At sundown, they would assemble again to dissect the latest rumors: Was the government really pushing ahead with state-owned-enterprise reform? What might that mean for blue-chip stocks?
At Liu Lianguo’s fertilizer shop, where the robust WiFi signal attracts neighborhood kids, the midday mahjong game gave way to a group of men gathered around a purple laptop. The small grocery store owned by veteran investor Wang Lili, 42, became a meeting place for evening market talk.
Nan, the former schoolteacher, would return each night to share the news — always good — with his wife.
Then came the crash.
The farmer-investors of Nanliu know about volatility — their livelihoods have depended on the whims of weather and the price-setting powers of people far, far away. That did little to ease the pain as people watched helplessly as the equivalent of a year’s work on the land vanished in the span of a day.
When the first drop came, many locals, including shopkeeper Wang Lili, pulled their money, but Nan held firm. He wanted to believe. And, heeding what he read online, he thought it was the right thing to do. Officials were blaming “hostile foreign forces” for the rout and people were calling on investors to be patriotic.
“It is not just a stock market issue any more. I will fight with forces who short China’s economy,” Cao Zenghui, deputy manager of Sina Weibo, wrote online. Fan Shaoxuan, an executive at Weibo TV, issued a similar call: “Hold stocks with confidence. Win glory for the country even if you lose the last penny.”
Nan’s wife, Wang, could not decide whether to laugh or cry. “The weather is so hot and I have to go to the fields, and I make so little, and he can go and lose so much in one day?” she said with a wry smile. “Am I angry? Of course I’m angry!”
After July, when steep drops wiped out trillions of dollars and brought reporters back to town, people stopped gathering at the village chief’s house, several locals said. It is still unclear whether he simply stepped out for the day or is not taking calls, though the fact that dozens of villagers refused to comment on his whereabouts suggests that the matter may be politically sensitive.
On Friday, after another wild week in the market, the men at Liu’s fertilizer shop were back to playing mahjong. Liu lost money but said he wouldn’t walk away from investing: “You can’t make a living working the land,” he said.
Wang Lili still hosts a small group of farmer-investors at her grocery shop. She believes the market has bottomed out and wants to get back in. “The economy will more forward, not back,” she said. “It must.”
For Nan, the taste of fast money has been hard to forget. His wife, Wang, wants him back in the fields, but he believes he can recover what he lost, maybe more. If he is angry, he won’t say so, fulsomely praising the local chief and the Communist Party as he compulsively checks for market news on his phone.
On his desk sit two new books: “The Simplest Things in Investment” and the awkwardly titled “A Farmer’s Hundreds of Millions of Wealth Legend” — the unlikely story of a peasant who beat the odds and struck it rich.