Sent to the Countryside for Re-education: a field trip to Huaxicun, China’s wealthiest village

This past weekend, I went with other College of Public Administration grad students on a field trip of sorts.  Our destination was Huaxi village, located in Jiangsu Province near the south bank of the Yangtze River.  Huaxi village is famous throughout China, and the world, for one thing: this little peasant commune is filthy stinkin’ rich. Just a couple of buildings in rural Huaxi VillageObservation deck of "New Village in the Sky"

So rich, in fact, that their village-scale agrarian utopia, at least an hour’s drive from the nearest city, is something of a tourist draw in these parts. Actually, the whole concept kind of reminded of that so-called Farm that a certain Vanderbilt daughter bestowed upon my home state. That enterprise was also supposed to be a model agricultural operation, presumably for all the other somewhat less-moneyed farmers to somehow follow. Add a few factories to the business mix, and substitute school field trips of bored local kids with government field trips of bored low-level Party cadres (and their equally bored wives), and you get the idea of what’s going on here in Huaxi Village. (My tongue-in-cheek comparison goes even further: amidst grandiose displays of wealth, both proudly claim that they have struck upon a teachable model for sustainable development.)

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But the Chinese Communist Party has always made heavy use of exemplary workers, soldiers, etc. to provide models for everyone else to follow. Some of them were completely made up. So is Huaxicun just another Lei Feng, or is it the real get-rich-quick-together with Socialism-with-Chinese-characteristics deal?

Curious, although admittedly skeptical—especially my Chinese classmates, most of whom come from rural areas—we set out to find out.

Front porches, two-car garages, and a giant gleaming orb in the sky.An overabundance of lion statues indicates that this is no ordinary village roadSo there were were. Upon arriving, our first impression was: impressed. Rows of big houses with two-car garages? This is America! Only really Chinese: in the center of town, amidst good-luck fountains and good-luck bells and good-luck statues of every figure that could possibly bring good luck (including Jesus), they’d built six huge pagoda-style office buildings. But the over-the-top allusions to good luck were surely just modesty. As the information exhibit explained, they’d gotten to this point through hard work, sensible investments, an inclusive form of village government and communal wealth distribution. It’s not the American Dream, it’s the Socialist Dream, and it’s awesome: to each according to his need, yes. And what everyone needs is two Audis and a good landscaping service.

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After our initial ogling, we made our way to the town’s signature landmark: “New Village in the Sky,” a gleaming 72-story hotel and conference center, its distinctive shimmering-gold Death Star-like orb flashingly visible from many miles away across the flat farmland. Entering into the lobby, we stepped from rural Jiangsu into the Bellagio. Lots of marble and gold and fountains. Only this isn’t gambling – Huaxi Village never loses on its bets. Well, to get rich is glorious.Where once was just fields.
But it turned out that not all the villagers are good at making money. After wandering around a little, I was told by a smartly-dressed attendant at the elevator that entry to the upper floors would cost 260RMB. But I could go up to the restaurant for free, presumably because I’d be spending plenty of money there.

Okay, I said, winking, I’m going to the restaurant!

Once inside the elevator, I struck up a conversation with the bellhop. He was from elsewhere in Jiangsu province, and came to Huaxicun for the job.  He told me his salary was really good. “Can I just take a look around on the top floor?” I asked. Sure.

So we got off at the observation deck, and from then on, nobody checked to see if we had tickets. This is in itself is unusual in China, where most places that charge admission also require you to regularly present your ticket for verification. Could the wealthiest village in China really have gotten this rich through such lax business practices? I began to doubt.

Themed floors in the elevator. Floors translated:
(72) Paradise (Observation Deck)
(71) Prince View (Chinese Restaurant)
(70) Rotating Palace (Rotating Restaurant)
(69)
Museum
(61)
Flower Garden and Aviary
(60)
Gold Floor
(48)
Wood Floor
(36)
Water Floor
(24)
Fire Floor
(12)
Earth Floor
(4) 
Meeting Rooms
(3) 
Local Flavors Restaurant
(2) 
Chinese Business Restaurant
(1) 
Hotel Lobby
(B1) (KTV)
Meanwhile, “New Village in the Sky” was unbelievably awesome.  From the observation deck, we could look out upon Huaxi Village’s many accomplishments, including its successful manufacturing enterprises as well as its life-size replicas of Tiananmen Square and the Great Wall of China, both perched on nearby hill.  But the themed floors were the best part. Think weird frat heaven-and-hell party meets Earth Wind and Fire meets a gajillion dollars meets China.  The centerpiece of each floor was a water buffalo statue made from the themed element.  On the “earth” floor, this meant the statue was made out of fired clay. So on the “gold” floor, the water buffalo was of course made out of solid gold – at last check, hundreds of millions of dollars worth.  This was the highlight for most of the Chinese visitors. For me, it was getting off on the “water” floor and realizing there sharks swimming in a giant tank above my head.
View from above.The factories and other capital investments that helped make Huaxicun's villagers so wealthyThe solid-gold water buffalo.On the water-themed floor, spigots and waterwheels represent the villagers' farming origins
But after touring New Village in the Sky, it was time to do more exploring in the old village on the ground.  We talked to both Huaxi Villagers (a couple who were willing to let their guard down) as well as workers who came from out of town to take the jobs here.  No surprise, the impression we got was that Huaxi Village isn’t so much a socialist utopia as it is a successful corporation, although the likely extent of government backing perhaps gives a different meaning to “successful.”  In any case, the shareholders Outside of Huaxicun, nearby villagers were relocated to apartment blocks in order to make room for Huaxi's factories and other businesses.are those holding citizenship in the village, the original inhabitants of this farming community.  They receive incredible dividends and some amount of say in choosing the equivalent of a board of directors, and in return they abide by the decisions of their leaders and adhere to various village rules.  These rules limit, for example, how they spend their money, and stipulate that they must work (intern, really) in management at one of the village’s enterprises.  Meanwhile, the workers from outside of town receive competitive salaries and enjoy relatively good conditions (so they said), but face the same hurdles to unionizing that are common throughout the People’s Republic.  They have no say in management decisions, and certainly no right to vote in Huaxi village elections.

So what’s the verdict on Huaxicun?

Well, I’d say you just gotta see this place.  But don’t pay to go up the elevator.

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1 Comment

Filed under Jiangnan Style, Life in the Bike Lane

One response to “Sent to the Countryside for Re-education: a field trip to Huaxicun, China’s wealthiest village

  1. Pingback: Year in Review: Welcome to the 中国’s Least-Bad of 2012 | Welcome to the 中国

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