A journey to the richest (and one of the strangest) villages on earth.
Cabbage field, tree, chicken, skyscraper. China. Throughout history various groups of humans have built monuments which show their prowess and power. From the pyramids of Egypt to the ceremonial sites of the Maya and Aztec, from the Great Wall of China to Angor Wat, the Roman Colosseum to Stonehenge, when cultures become technologically sophisticated and powerful enough they tend to demonstrate this progress with gargantuan works of engineering. In this era, powerful cultures build skyscrapers.
Huaxi Hanging Village rising in the distance
I peered through the smoke that was being emitted from the twin smokestacks of a coal-fed power plant and saw something very much out of place rising in the distance. In the early morning hours of a late summer day I looked out into the central Jiangsu plains, and there, amid the typical factories, agricultural fields, and small villages was an incredible skyscraper. It appeared almost as a mirage through the morning haze, and if I did not know about this colossal specimen of engineering before I set my sights upon it, I probably would have questioned if what I was seeing was real. Who builds thousand foot high skyscrapers out in the middle of rural nowhere? The Chinese.
You almost come to expect such surrealist insanity after living in this country for a time, but this skyscraper was something above and beyond the usual Chinese altered-state. The skyscraper that I was looking at was a work which bookmarks a turning point in history, it was a monument in the truest form — a monument to globalization, capitalism, China’s rise to power, and, of course, the reworking of the socialist model. It even looked like a trophy. The skyscraper is called the Zengdi Kongzhong, and it is currently the 40th tallest building in the world, the 15th largest in China. It is higher than the Eiffel Tower, New York’s Chrysler Building, everything in Tokyo, and will even top the Shard London Bridge, which is slated to be the tallest building in the EU when it is finished next year. The skyscraper is 74 stories high, and tops out at 328 meters — the same size as the tallest building in Beijing. This height was not unintentional, as the number 328 is loaded with significance. In Chinese thought, 32 is associated with business and 8 represents prosperity — put them together and you can add on a layer of auspiciousness to one big, expensive, and very strange skyscraper.
As I looked upon the skyscraper that has come to represent the economic prowess of the village — of the country — it sprouts out of, I stopped for a moment just to marvel at its shape and dimensions as well as to fully appreciate the oddness of what was standing before me. The Zengdi Kongzhong was basically three giant green-blue pedestals assembled in a triangle configuration with an incredible gold sphere placed upon its top. My trophy reference above was not completely in jest, as the thing really does look like a prize for winning a bowling tournament — albeit one that has been blown up to gargantuan dimensions. This is perhaps by no mistake, as this building truly represents victory.
Huaxi: from a poor village to a communist model community
“The skies above Huaxi are the skies of the Communist party. The land of Huaxi is the land of socialism.” -Huaxi’s village song
“One village, one man, one miracle,” is how Huaxi village is often summed up. Huaxi is held up as a model of success for Chinese socialism, a system where every man, woman, and child is supposed to get rich off of the globalization epidemic and then revert into a true communist state where everybody will share the wealth. This is the propaganda at least. But whatever the future may hold, Huaxi is what the Communist Party means when they talk about building a “new socialist countryside.”
Though Huaxi’s journey from tilling the earth to scraping the sky was not typical in this least, and did not happen without controversy. Just forty years ago, Huaxi was a regular, run of the mill, podunk agricultural commune inauspiciously placed out in rural Jiangsu province. It was a place where people have been farming for millenia, then around forty years ago when the country began modernizing it became a place for factories. Textiles, steel, iron, chemicals, tobacco, you name it, Huaxi has made it. With a succession of deft moves to expand operations and start shipping their products internationally, the village soon began exporting massive amounts of goods and importing massive amounts of cash. Like so, the once poor village became a manufacturing epicenter, and under the direction of their omnipotent Communist Party secretary it grew into a place unlike any other on the planet.
The most striking thing about Huaxi — besides the skyscraper — is that the village’s original inhabitants are now very wealthy people. The story goes that each family now has over $150,000 in their bank account, and is provided by the village with two brand new cars, a villa, free health care, and stock in their companies. How does it happen that once poor farmers could accumulate such wealth in a single generation? Is it true that the village’s businesses are really socialized and their profits are divided among the workers? Is this place for real? On one beautiful summer morning I traveled to Huaxi, and set out to answer some of these questions for myself.
The story of Huaxi and the story of Wu Renbao cannot be separated. It would not be an understatement to say that he made Huaxi. He became the village’s party secretary when the commune was first created. It is said that he was born a farmer, but his political senses and intuition allowed him to navigate Communist party bureaucracy and create something very unique in his village. In point, Wu was able to gauge the political and economic turns the China would eventually take and transformed his labor force from agriculture to production very early on.
In 1969, during the height of the Cultural Revolution, Huaxi started up a village-owned textile factory — something that was then punishable by death. Somehow, through political jockeying, grace, or luck, Wu was able to coerce his superiors to look the other way as the factory began producing and distributing goods. “I could not sit and watch my people starve to death. We were scared of being poor. And farming alone would never have led us out of poverty,” he later said. Wu Renbao turned out to be a master of what the Chinese call “outward obedience and secret independence,” where you show deference towards your superiors but then enact your own strategies behind their backs. In his own words: “If a policy does not suit our village, I will not implement it.” Like this, Wu followed some of the central government’s policies while adapting others to meet his own needs and wants.
A decade later when China began an economic reform movement which consisted of liquidating communes in favor of privately run family farming initiatives, Huaxi decided to stay communal under Wu’s direction. The earnings from the first textile factory were already earning more money for the villagers than their farming was, and they plowed ahead and began a near complete transition from farming to manufacturing. They built more factories and started up more businesses of various types. When China began opening up to the outside world in the early 1980s, Wu and Huaxi were ready.
Rather than resisting the oncoming tide of capitalism, Huaxi embraced it, and reaped the spoils. “If you just grow crops, you don’t really have a very rich life,” Wu once said. “You’ve got to have money. Without money, everything is just empty words.”
Huaxi continued expanding rapidly in just about every way imaginable. The original population of 2,000 peasants began to swell, as workers from other areas began pouring in to work at the village’s factories. The size of Huaxi began growing as well, and, to date, it has taken over (i.e. bought out) 12 neighboring villages. In 1998, Huaxi was the first commune to be listed on China’s stock exchange, eight big corporations were founded there, and earnings in the ballpark of three to four billion dollars pour into the once poor, little village each year. Huaxi clearly holds the undisputed title of “China’s richest village.”
But this rise was nothing ordinary, and the attribution of the village’s success to its leader is not an empty kowtow to authority. Wu not only figured out how to work economics to his advantage but the Chinese political climate as well. As it’s often put here, Wu made friends high and low, and somehow was able to finagle the cards in front of him and keep the deck continuously stacked in his favor. Chinese political analysis, Yan Lieshan, once stated that it was Wu’s “political and economic interaction” that enabled him to build his masterpiece and “Without political backing, how else would it have been possible for Huaxi to grow so fast?” Whatever is the case, Wu Renbao is an enigma.
As I entered the village it did not take me long before I began spotting the banners which sported the face of the village’s dear leader. Though he’s a multi-millionaire he still calls himself a farmer, and from the state of his blackened, rotted out teeth I’d almost believe it. The banners showed Mr. Wu dressed in cheap-o peasant clothes waving at the cameras with children, and then showed him in formal wear shaking hands with China’s president and other Communist Party elites. There was definitely a personality cult at play here, Wu’s image and story were plastered everywhere. On October 12 of this year a movie about Wu Renbao will be aired all over China.
Huaxi often calls itself the “No.1 village under the sky,” but as I entered the town I thought “strangest” may have been a more accurate title. The skyscraper looked even more surreal when seen up close, presiding over a grid of three hundred identical ochre colored villas and a dozen giant pagodas. These residential buildings were assembled around the skyscraper as though they were bowing down and kowtowing before their much larger and powerful leader. In that moment the Zengdi Kongzhong seemed to be a metaphor for Wu Renbao himself.
The streets of the residential part of Huaxi looked like nothing else in China. Thick rows of trees lined both sides of the streets and completely surrounded each villa, giving the place the appearance and feel of a campground. “We’re trying to build an ecological village that looks like a forest garden,” Wu once said. All of the houses were identical, and, from what I could tell, not a single one had anything on its exterior which marked it as unique in any way. The neighborhoods were fully, completely uniform — they houses looked so alike that it was difficult to believe that they were lived in.
It was then that I had to admit that Huaxi looked like the cover art of a bad 1970’s era science fiction novel, but this was reality. I shook my head and tried to hone in on what was before me, but I could not shake the feeling of surreal detachment from these surroundings. It was nine o’clock in the morning but there was a sixty person dance troupe on the village’s massive stage practicing various routines in full costume. Chinese show tunes were blaring over loud speakers as a rather attractive woman in tights was swinging back and forth across the stage hanging upside down from a giant hula hoop. This was Wu Renbao’s personal dance company, and it did not help my vertigo. To add yet a little more to this feeling of strangeness, on a nearby hill there is an incredibly long replica of the Great Wall. It’s part of an exhibit that houses replicas of the Forbidden City, the Arc de Triumphe, the Sydney opera house, the White House, and the Statue of Liberty.
If nothing else, Huaxi surely keeps the local stone animal carving industry in business. Foo dogs, lions, and other guardians to protect wealth were rendered in stone form all through the village. Most were giant, standing at least five to seven feet high. There were so many stone animals flanking the streets, surrounding the buildings, and guarding the walkways of this village that the effect verged on parody — to go anywhere you had to run a gauntlet of them.
And then I saw the larger than life-size stone array of Chairman Mao and his core group of Communist Party heroes sitting in big chairs with little red bandannas tied around their necks, and the stone animals did not seem so obnoxious anymore.
That said, as far as it’s spatial dimensions are concerned, Huaxi was truly village-sized. The residential area of the village was not large, being perhaps two kilometers in length and breadth. Outside of the fancy homes and the area immediately surrounding the skyscraper, Huaxi looked like a run of the mill Chinese village. Wedged between a giant pagoda that housed a hotel and the Orwellian housing block there was a rugged public park that had bridges and walkways and an attempt at a zoo — which just amounted to a mud pit that a gaggle of geese flapped around in and a wooden cage or two that I did not have the guts to peer into.
There was only a single row of shops in the village, and none of them were selling anything special. In all, the business district consisted of a few clothing stores, a place to buy shoes, a half dozen low budget restaurants, and a few noodle houses. The retail options here truly seemed to belie a place whose residents were supposed to be super rich. As I stood by the row of shops that could have been found in any half-developed Chinese city the skyscraper looked even more obtuse and out of place. It was as though a massive typhoon just blew it in from Pudong — which perhaps is a metaphor that isn’t far from the truth. Though, of course, the typhoon was not one of wind and rain but one of commerce and money.
So I wandered over to Huaxi’s ground zero to have a look at what it was all about. The skyscraper was completely fenced in with gates and trees. Security guards worked the entrances and I got the feeling that the place could have been off limits to my ilk. “Can I go in?” I asked a security guard, and he just laughed at me and said of course. I was alone as I walked up to the behemoth’s base. I jumped up a flight of stairs, then down another. I circumambulated the tower just getting a feel for the best place to try to enter. Nobody was around to bug me as I snapped photos and got a good look at the beast before me. For such a conspicuous megalith it seemed deserted.
I walked in through some doors and found myself staring into a banquet hall like I’ve never imagined before. Just about everything that could be was plated with gold. There was even a massive golden arch that rose up and over a small stage. Gold, gold, gold, the place was so rich looking that it bordered on make believe — or gaudy. I then exited this area and made for the visitor’s reception desk. I half way wanted to go up to the 60th floor to see the gold room, which boasts as its center piece a one ton, 47 million dollar gold ox. But when I was told that it would cost me $16 to look at it I decline. I thought about going up to the top, but that seemed to be $16 as well. If these people have enough money to go around platting their skyscraper with gold and buying golden oxen that weigh as much as the real animal they probably do not need any more cash from me. I sulked out and continued on to the hotel’s main entrance.
The lobby of the Longxi International Hotel, which is housed in the skyscraper, was, of course, full of gold. There was a golden fountain where golden dragons spat out water into the mouths of golden frogs; there were giant golden phoenixes flying upon a background of golden clouds; there was gold on the railings and on the trimmings. There were also statues of Chairman Mao placed around the room, each complete with little red bandannas tied around their necks. The presence of Mao statues and motifs have become very uncommon in China, but in Huaxi they were everywhere. The village is not only a beacon of economic prowess, but political as well, and Communist Party members from all around the country come on pilgrimages to Huaxi, and the wealthiest stay right inside what’s become one of the most emblematic models of the new China: the Zengdi Kongzhong.
I walked over to the hotel’s cafe and, for some strange reason, inquired as to the price of a coffee. 25 RMB. The price was ridiculous, but not extraordinary in a country where coffee is a middle/ upper class drink. I chatted with the baristas for a while. They seemed rather bored over the lack of customers. I considered buying a cup of coffee and hanging out with them for a while, but my hand froze in place as I tried to wedge it into my pocket: I just couldn’t bear contributing to the stream of opulence that was flowing out of this place. I checked myself, exited the skyscraper, and walked into its shadow, where people labor for scarcely $15 a day.
“Family, loyalty, honesty and hard work,” is one of Wu Renbao’s mottoes, and it shows from how he organized Huaxi’s workforce. There is a very clearly divided social hierarchy in Huaxi — sort of ironic for a “model Communist village.” At the top is old Wu, his immediate family, and their relatives. They are followed by the 2,000 original Huaxi residents, who now mostly maintain managerial positions in the factories they helped create. Beneath this original group are the 35,000 people who live in the 12 villages that Huaxi has recently taken over. While at the bottom of the pyramid are the 20 to 40,000 migrant workers who’ve flooded the town in search of work.
The social organization of Huaxi is complex, and there are overt signs that the residents here, though some of them are very wealthy, live under a draconian set of rules. Work ethic is highly touted in this village, and it’s manifested by the fact that many of the employees are said to work seven days a week without any holidays. Some news reports say that the residents are forbidden to even leave the village. Other reports say that if any of the villages move away they lose all the savings, their stocks, house, car, and all benefits.
Many of the news reports that have circulated about Huaxi seem rather shaky, as though the reporters were either spoon fed by the village’s PR team or wrote their articles purely off of speculation and hearsay. Huaxi is a controversial topic in China, and both sides of the issue have been taken in the media, but it seemed that nobody has yet been able to sit down with a Huaxi resident who wasn’t an official in an unsupervised setting to get the raw story without the puppet talk.
I walked through the streets of Huaxi looking to talk with one of the 2,000 original residents, who are shareholders in the village’s companies, the beneficiaries of “the miracle.” I saw wealthy looking people in slick suits driving around in fancy black luxury cars and SUVs, but they all seemed overtly elusive — as though my presence was some type of repellent. The laborers from other villages, the migrant workers, and their kids were in the streets and were more than willing to chat, but it was the core group of Huaxi villagers who rose from being poor farmers to rich managers that I wanted to find out more about. After a couple of hours of trying to corner someone “rich looking” I gave up and tried to enter the compound where they live. Under the shade of a tree canopy a security guard quickly blocked my path. I then looked for a place where I may be able to find some of these wealthy villages hanging out, but could not find any. There were no bars, no tea houses, no cafes, no KTV in Huaxi. I did find a dingy pool hall, but it was clearly not the kind of place that anyone high class would ever step into. Even in the hotel lobby of the great skyscraper all I could find were empty chairs and imported workers.
It wasn’t until later that I found out that this was by design: apparently, it was Wu’s intention to ban any hang outs from popping up in his domain. “Gambling and drugs are strictly forbidden in the village. There is, in fact, no night life whatsoever. No Internet cafes or karaoke lounges. No bars or coffee shops. Anyone who engages in speculation will be driven out of the village, and his property confiscated,” a Chinese news source reported. I also found out later the original group of villagers are forbidden to talk to the press or even to strike up conversations with outsiders. I did corner an old man in a nice looking suit at one point, but he managed to politely slither away rather quickly and returned to the confines of his compound. There was clearly a buffer between outsiders and the true workings of this enigmatic village.
It seemed as if the original inhabitants of Huaxi live very cloistered lives, for sure. As put by the China Daily: “Huaxi Village is managed as if it were an army compound.” Yan Lieshan, a respected Chinese author and journalist, described Huaxi as “a quasi-slavery system. No weekends. No vacations. No privacy. Everyone listens to one omnipresent and omnipotent god. And a person has to give up much of his freedom in exchange for a relatively well-off standard of living.” Wu Renbao publicly defines happiness as having a car, a house, money, a kid, and face”. “If you have these five things, you are happy,” he was reported as having said. The residents of Huaxi may have these things, but it did not seem to me as if they have much else.
There was something missing in Huaxi that made truly suspicious: there were no high-end stores, no nice restaurants, no movie theaters, no malls, nowhere for all of these wealthy people to spend or otherwise enjoy their money. Where there are people with money in China there are fancy stores trying to sell them fancy things, and there is one thing that Chinese people with money seem to love doing beyond all else: shop. Huaxi, a village where all the core residents are supposed to have over $150,000 in the bank, was oddly missing this key element. The shops in this village were what you’d expect in any run of the mill town in this country, not in a place listed on the stock exchange with a thousand foot luxury skyscraper that’s decked out in gold. It’s true that some of the wealthy class of Huaxi drive around in truly expensive cars, but there did not seem to be anywhere for them to go. The original inhabitants of Huaxi may have hundreds of thousands of dollars in their bank accounts, but I’m very suspicions as to how liquid and available these assets are.
In fact, according to various sources, the Huaxi skyscraper was partially funded by the village’s elite 200 households, who contributed 10 million yuan ($1.6 million) each. It seems as if my suspicions were not unfounded. I read a news article that stated that the workers in Huaxi “are not paid in full . . . but receive just 20 per cent of those wages in cash. The rest is put into a stock fund. Other incomes, such as dividends and subsidies, are also subject to a significant degree of withholding. If someone wishes to withdraw money from the fund, he must first fill out an application, which is then subject to the village committee’s approval. When anyone leaves Huaxi Village, all of the money that belongs to him in the fund is expropriated along with the car and the house.”
I then went into a run down fried chicken restaurant and ordered a 5 RMB cup of coffee. I made the acquaintance of an electrician who worked in a nearby factory, and we chatted for a while. He was clearly not one of the wealthy original residents but I throttled him with questions none the less. He told me that he works six days per week, alternating between eight and twelve hour shifts. Though he doesn’t work seven days per week, he did have to work during the national holiday that was currently going on. He said that he makes 6,000 RMB per month, which seemed about right for his profession, and it was clear that he was not being given any stock options in the company.
All for all, this electrician’s position in Huaxi did not seem much different than that of a tradesman anywhere else in China. Of all the laborers in Huaxi only five percent are locals, ran a news report. This was evident as I wandered through the village. The class divisions in this place are incredibly thick and the distribution of wealth overtly inequitable. Most of the people living and working in Huaxi are not sharing in the spoils, and are truly not living much differently than their brethren in other parts of the country. Sure, many of the workers here may be putting in seven day work weeks without holidays like the media reports say, but they do not seem to be getting much for their efforts: they are the proletariat, and they are treated as such. There is a wealthy class in Huaxi, but that’s where the miracle ends. The place seems no closer to a model communist village than a capitalist mafia den.
The miracle and the reality
For every skyscraper there are a thousand smokestacks. This is the reality behind the Huaxi miracle. You walk around the village and you check out all the things you’re supposed to notice: the high-rise pagodas, the nice walkways, and the super luxury skyscraper hotel, but then you notice a treeline running down the eastern edge of the main square, and you soon realize that this is the buffer between the miracle and the reality. On the other side of this row of evergreens is the other half of the story: factories. For as far as you can see, there are factories. Massive ensembles of pipes, iron beams, sheet metal, and smokestacks roll out in a virtual sea stretching away from China’s richest village. Though wealthy, Huaxi is also polluted.
They cash in now, think about the environment later business strategy has run its course: the miracle village is now staring down an ecological problem of their own making. They recently had to shut down five chemical and textile factories that were dumping waste into the Zhangjiagang river and then engage in over 50 million dollars worth of cleanup procedures.
Acknowledging this problem, the village is now going for a cleaner industry: tourism. This, apparently, was the reason for the skyscraper. “This skyscraper will give us the edge,” said old Wu. “No other village has one.” You can’t argue with that, but is a strange skyscraper in the middle of nowhere and some replicas of other tourist destinations enough to float Huaxi in the post-industrial era it’s preparing for? The village claims that its goal is to grow into a city, but as of now, there just isn’t much there and far too many key elements — such as nightlife — are nonexistent. In point, blending an Orwellian style dictatorship with happy go lucky tourism seems to be two mutually exclusive endeavors. But China is a land of irony, contradiction, and extremes: you can never rule out the absolutely insane.
As I left the village I had a nagging feeling that behind the facade Huaxi may not be exactly what it’s said to be. Wherever miracles seem to appear, reality tends to be right there to squash them. Whatever is the case, Huaxi remains a trophy on the shelf of the New China.
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