The friend who invited me to Huaxi’s 50th anniversary first advertised the weekend as some kind of helicopter festival: “Hey free helicopter rides, wanna go?” First instinct: No thanks, don’t want to die in China. But then he told me it was Huaxi, now internationally renowned as “China’s Richest Village” and home to one of the tallest buildings in the country, a state-of-the-art medical hospital, a fake Great Wall, and 2,000 super wealthy villagers all living in huge houses with luxury cars.
I was interested mostly in going to see for myself which rumors about the village were true. Did they really all have mansions? Did everybody make over $60,000 USD per year? To make that money did they have to work seven days a week? Was it really the ideal communist model village, the pinnacle of socialism gone right?
The trip is a short hour and a half drive north of Shanghai (or only an hour if your driver decides 100mph is a reasonable speed on China’s roads at night.) Our driver told us he was from Da Huaxi, meaning the areas surrounding the central village, where Huaxi has swallowed up multiple other small towns and now encompasses a population of about 50,000 people, give or take. And then I realized that looking only at hukou holders (the 2,000 loaded villa-dwellers) is a silly way to evaluate the town as a whole. The majority of the people living and working in the area aren’t part of this now-infamous social “experiment.”
The weekend itself was designed to impress upon us every awesome aspect of Huaxi, and there were plenty. Despite being somewhat ineptly handled upon arrival (we were supposed to stay with villagers, got passed from PR guy to PR guy, and finally fanoogled our way into the skyscraper hotel thanks to our incredibly capable and bullish fixer friend Jack) I was impressed with pretty much everything.
The houses really are villas, the staff at the Longwish hotel speak decent English and dress impeccably, the breakfast buffet was edible, and the helicopter ride was fucking sweet. And then there’s the renowned fake Great Wall, Arc de Triomphe, Tian’anmen Rostrum, Sydney Opera House, and what we heard was the White House but then found out was more like the Capital Building stacked on top of the White House and topped off with the Statue of Liberty. I like how these people think.
The invite for the 50th Anniversary ceremony (and for the opening of the 328-meter Longwish hotel) was an open invitation to all international media and I got that familiar feeling that they wanted us there less for our coverage and more for the status that foreign faces and media lend to the proceedings. In fact, everything in Huaxi seems designed to schmooze the up-and-ups (we can’t really imagine the hotel will see any substantial tourism, but it is perfect for government meetings.) We also noted that the ceremony’s hour-long speech proclaiming the town’s devotion to the environment, and their interest in transitioning to a more service-sector economy, all seemed cleverly in line with the 12th five-year plan.
For those of you unfamiliar with the place, the story goes like this: Local party secretary Wu Renbao caught the iron and steel industry on the upswing during China’s opening up, made a killing, brought all his fellow villagers into the business and made them all stakeholders. Believe what you will about his intentions. My personal conclusion is Wu Renbao is genius at crafting himself an elaborate safety network of villagers totally reliant on his business and his family for their incredibly comfortable livelihoods. He started from extreme poverty, and he claims that he simply wants his countrymen to enjoy an easier life than he did.
We were told by another driver that the deal for villagers works like this: If they hold a Huaxi hukou they are immediately entitled to a stake in Huaxi’s industries. Villagers are guaranteed something like an minimum income of 100,000RMB per year, but they can’t really spend it. They are obliged to take only a small percentage for themselves (our driver said around 15%) and the rest of the money must be re-invested in Huaxi. Later on, they can then begin to profit more substantially from interest on those investments, which they are allowed to keep for themselves.
We spent the majority of the weekend asking everybody we met whether they were villagers, and if so, what their job was. I’d say about half gave us murky answers at best. We got the distinct feeling that most of them don’t do much at all (and definitely no 7-day work weeks.)
The younger villagers we talked to said they were bored with their jobs but probably couldn’t advance much higher because they weren’t close enough to the Wu family. We also learned that no matter how great you are your job, you’ll never become management if you aren’t a Huaxi villager (a shame for the 20,000 non-locals working there.) You can begin to understand why some accuse the place of being one giant fiefdom structured around guanxi with the despot.
Depending on how you look at it, the village could be seen as representing the ideal socialist community where everybody “owns” the means of production, or just a successfully managed and profitable corporate infrastructure. It was probably that paradoxical communist-capitalist element that left us just as muddled when we left as when we arrived. But I will say this – all this business about a “Huaxi model” is probably nonsense. You can’t replicate the economic environment in China 30 years ago, nor the charisma of Wu Renbao. And they’ve been making billions for years now, but somehow this “model” hasn’t managed to extend beyond a tiny group of 2,000 shareholders? I’m not that impressed.
But one thing is clear: We went expecting to find at least some tarnish on an image as shiny as that one-ton golden ox sitting on the 60th floor of an empty skyscraper. We figured somebody must be exploited to pay for all the villas, BMWs, helicopters, medical facilities, and an 826-bedroom luxury hotel. But we left feeling like Huaxi was simply a lucky industry town run by a competent investor with solid policies and some good strategy. They make their money off the labor of thousands of migrant workers just like everywhere else, to whom they pay a slightly above average salary (3,000RMB average.) But as far as we could see, the system was on the level, and almost everybody we met seemed happy and proud of their village.
If you want to visit, buses certainly run from the Long Distance Bus Station (behind the Shanghai Railway Station) but there are no trains running that direction. But rates at the hotel start at 2,080RMB and quickly climb to this. Helicopter rides cost 1,000RMB for 15 minutes. In other words, unless you get in on their next big anniversary party, you should probably spend your money checking out the real Great Wall.