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-by Ernie Diaz
Not long ago we gave you a quick rundown of China’s richest cities. But there’s not one city in the world without its poor, well though municipal bodies may camouflage them. Can’t have rich people without poor people – that’s the nature of capitalism, human nature, this dichotomous world.
But socialism was supposed to be the triumph of man over dialectic materialism. And official Chinese propaganda would have you believe that, at least on the village level, socialism has successfully incorporated nasty western economics and produced a community where everyone is rich.
That village is Huaxi, a few hours’ car ride northwest of Shanghai, a Potemkin for the Consumer Age. Every last one of Huaxi’s close to forty thousand official residents enjoys the global hallmarks of success: a McMansion, two cars (mostly white Beemers and Benzes), a fat bank account, and unlimited cooking oil (that last is a Chinese thing.) Actual free health care and education, like Northern Europeans, not nominal, like the rest of China.
So awash is Huaxi in cashflow that the village owns a private air-service, two helicopters, a six and an eight-seater. Villagers ride free, but a tourist can take a chopper ride for 1,000RMB an hour, birds-eyeing this Chinese paradise and its off-brand Epcot Center, World Park, with scaled-down models of everything from the Statue of Liberty to the Arc de Triomphe.
The chopper pilot, however, had best keep his mind on steering clear of The New Village Tower. 328 meters, higher than any building in England, the tower seems to have been plucked from the Shanghai skyline by some deity of skyscraper redistribution and replanted in Huaxi, as incongruous as a redwood on the prairie.
The half-billion dollar display of wealth is as cheerfully vulgar within as the crowning golden disco ball without. Gold leaf reception, gold-flaked floor, and most ominously for any who still remember the Old Testament, a solid gold ox, worth 31 million pounds when installed, since appreciated, as the gnomes in Zurich struggle to hold down gold prices.
To explain such inordinate cash reserves, a regular reader would expect us to start pointing to the mercantile acumen of Chinese inhabiting the Yangtze Delta. After all, Huaxi’s nearest big neighbor, faded Wuxi, was the terminus of China’s Grand Canal, an aorta pumping goods and wealth up through China’s upper chambers for centuries. But this outlier of a village, a good three standard deviations from any Chinese community approaching it, owes its singularity to one man – Wu Renbao.
In the 1980s, Huaxi was indistinguishable from ten thousand dirt-road agrarian hamlets across China. Local Communist Party secretary, rehabilitated via public disgrace of his counterrevolutionary tendencies, immediately grasped the import of China’s market reforms, and began turning Huaxi from crops to corporate aggregation of manufacture and trade. With a twist – all profits went into a community chest. Voila, socialism with Chinese characteristics, more wildly successful than Deng Xiaoping’s most fevered dreams.
In his eighties now, Wu Renbao still gives regular lectures on his socialist success story, in an auditorium closely modeled on Beijing’s Great Hall of the People. The new tower, like just about everything else in Huaxi, was his idea, pragmatically capped at 328 meters so as not to eclipse the capital’s World Trade Center.
As anyone with a grain of wisdom may have guessed, Huaxi gets much less utopian on closer inspection. The residents, rich though they may be, officially work twelve-hour shifts, seven days a week, at the many factories which comprise the publically-listed Huaxi Group Corporation, umbrella for 57 subsidiaries and seven holding companies. Any Huaxi residents who want to are free to leave, but they leave behind the house, the cars, the money, even the oil, as unencumbered as the thousands of migrant workers who do the bulk of the toil for Huaxi Group, sans resident bennies.
Soft, liberal types who visit Huaxi will soon get to wondering how much wider and deeper all that fertilizing wealth could spread, and need to decamp to a natural attraction where the icky vibe of faux-topia can be washed away. Would that place were nearby Lake Taihu, third largest freshie in China, with its many islets, surrounding peaks, and movie town, where so many of CCTV’s fine, interchangeable period dramas are filmed.
But Lake Taihu has been rendered as tragically marred by pollution as a former beauty queen hooked on meth. But she still looks comely from a block away, and so does Taihu, from nearby Xihui Park. Refurbed pagodas and pavilions dot a pleasantly forested valley that breaks regularly to offer views of both the lake and Wuxi, both considerably more attractive from a safe remove.
Or, to put all this nonsense about GDP, have and have not in its proper perspective, there is nearby Lingshan. Lingshan offers the same distance-improved views of Wuxi and Taihu, as well as an 80 meter Sakyamuni Buddha, of bronze, not gold, right hand lifted to cast away suffering, left down and palm out to dispense happiness, not just to the residents of Huaxi, but to anyone who can slow down enough to realize that happiness only comes from within.