Bigger, taller, richer: China's golden village

Sat, Mar 17, 2012, 00:00

Thanks to the ambition of one local man, China’s richest village – embodied by its incongruous skyscraper – is a powerhouse symbol of the country’s economic expansion, writes CLIFFORD COONAN

THE SEVENTY-FOUR STOREY skyscraper in Huaxi, China’s richest village, stands out from the surrounding plain like a piece of science fiction, a giant tripod topped by a glittering golden orb.

The skyscraper is the crowning glory in Huaxi, a “model socialist village” founded in 1961 by the local Communist Party secretary, Wu Renbao, who transformed it from a poor farming area into a fabulously wealthy community, building first on its clever adaptations of modern agribusiness methods and then on its diversification into steel mills, logistics and textiles.

At a time when the rest of the world, and indeed much of China, is trying to absorb economic slowdown, Huaxi feels like a parallel universe.

Huaxi is where Chinese people come to learn how to get rich; the town’s replicas of the Arc de Triomphe and the Sydney Opera House are symbols of those aspirations.

What’s more, the commune of Huaxi was listed on the stock exchange in 1998 and is now a major corporation, with subsidiary companies that export to more than 40 countries.

Normally, the kind of oxen you see in Chinese villages are pulling carts or tilling fields; they are not horned beasts made from a ton of gold. But there is such a beast, a water buffalo statue on the 60th floor of the Zengdi Kongzhong New Village Tower. The structure would inch above the Eiffel Tower were it in Paris and the Chrysler Building were it in New York. “Zengdi” translates as “increase the land”, and the skyscraper cost €370 million to build. A lot of that went on the cow.

“This water buffalo cost 300 million yuan [€37 million], but now it’s worth 500 million yuan [€62 million],” says our guide, Tina Yao, as she steers us from floor to floor in the recently opened building.

Not far from the golden ox is a giant golden statue of the money god.

Other floors have giant oxen of solid silver. Fearsomely bejewelled chandeliers hang over your head in banquet halls that hold thousands of people. You timorously approach these glittering sites walking on gold-leaf marble, passing aquariums full of sharks and stingrays.

There is a Chairman Mao Zedong bush, made of solid gold, and there are gilded cages for crabs. The overall effect is dizzying. Dubai may be the model for Huaxi, with possibly a dash of Las Vegas and elements of North Korea, but the village is unique.

There are lots of Buddhas in evidence, jade floors, and walls lined with panels into which quotes from Wu have been carved.

Far below, you see villas and expensive vehicles. Every villager gets a share of the corporation’s profits and is entitled to a car, a house, healthcare and cooking oil.

Huaxi is not big on conventional charm, and there is a barrack-like feel to some of its housing, but it is well able to meet its people’s needs. Wu is keen that the village should showcase China’s achievements, and now two million visitors come each year to gaze on the splendour.

Huaxi’s founding families, who are generally referred to as stakeholders, number around 1,600 people, and the average household earns about €120,000 a year once all bonuses, pensions and wages are factored in. White BMWs abound, and Huaxi’s murals depict not socialist-realist muscled workers in overalls but happy families with villas and upmarket cars.

“We only ever wanted what was good for our people,” is an oft-repeated dictum of Wu, who is now 86 and retired. His son has taken over as party secretary, but Wu still gives lectures every day on “socialism with Chinese characteristics”. He avoids allying himself too closely with either capitalism or communism, though his pragmatism has strong elements of the Chinese Communist Party about it.

This is where Huaxi stands apart from so many other villages in China.

While the rest of the country suffers from a yawning wealth gap between the rich cities of the eastern seaboard and southern coasts and the rural hamlets, Huaxi took the initiative, driven by Wu’s pragmatism, and headed its own way. It behaved like a city, even importing labour, but it retained its village focus.

It is this approach, marrying socialism and capitalism, plus perhaps a dose of egotism, that draws so many visitors to Huaxi.

No one in the village doubts the wisdom of Wu. He broke up the collective system of farming and encouraged people to grow their own crops, and an artificial forest in the skyscraper bears testament to his idea of contracting out the communally run bamboo forest. He suggested these dangerous ideas during the Cultural Revolution, but he seems to have survived. Indeed he thrived.

His lingering affection for Mao is typical of the generation that suffered under the Great Helmsman but refuses to condemn him, and Mao’s image is common in Huaxi.

Below the stakeholders in the hierarchy come the residents from neighbouring villages that have been absorbed into Huaxi, and then tens of thousands of migrant workers who do most of the rest of the work.

Work and wealth are the crowning ideologies in Huaxi. No one takes weekend breaks, and there are no residents on the streets because they are all working.

THE DAYS OF scrabbling around in rocky Jiangsu scrub to make a living are long gone, and the village has diversified into many areas since then.

One of those areas is tourism, and some of the locals help to meet and greet tourists. A new reason to come is to see the skyscraper, which is impressive, although as there is nothing even remotely as tall in the surrounding countryside, it looks strangely incongruous.

The reason it is so tall, Wu said in a recent interview, is because Huaxi can compete with anyone in the country.

“Beijing’s tallest building is the 328-metre tall World Trade Center. Huaxi wants to maintain the same height with the Central Committee of the Communist Party,” he said.

The village has just launched the Longxi International Hotel, which has 2,000 beds and will employ 3,000 people eager to learn how to become wealthy Huaxi-style.

In the middle is a park with statues of five of the icons of communism in China, some more controversial than others. They include Mao, who founded the People’s Republic in 1949; his lieutenant Zhou Enlai and his loyal general Zhu De. Unsurprisingly, the group includes Deng Xiaoping, who accelerated

the process of opening up China in the late 1970s.

Intriguingly, the panoply also includes the former mayor of Beijing Liu Shaoqi, who was purged in the period of ideological frenzy known as the Cultural Revolution and whom many believed Mao had murdered. He has never really been rehabilitated and remains outside the pantheon of true revolutionary heroes.

But then Wu himself suffered during the Cultural Revolution. He set up factories, but the Red Guard ideologues paraded him in the village as a “capitalist roader” and locked him up, much in the same way as Liu Shaoqi was.

Like Deng, who suffered during the Cultural Revolution, Wu bade his time and soon was back on his capitalist track. These ideas gradually became formulated as “socialism with Chinese characteristics”.

All over the village are megaphones blasting out the village anthem, which declares that communist skies shine down on Huaxi, a village of everyday miracles.

“I have heard about Huaxi for many years. I have wanted to see it for many years,” says one octogenarian man from Chengzhou, who was visiting with his family.

Two men, both of them employed in security and not stakeholders in the village, say they love what is going on in Huaxi, but they admit they are a bit jealous of the shareholders who get a stake in the village’s profits every year.

There is a lot of bluster in the way Huaxi markets itself, and there are big divisions between the stakeholders and the migrants on the streets. But no one in China doubts its importance as a model for the success of the nation, and you deny at your peril the wisdom of Wu. The song from the public-address system says it proudly: “Socialism is best.”