Huaxi: Hope of the Chinese Countryside

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November 17, 1928, the cry of a newly born baby broke the haze of the autumn in a poor thatched cottage. The cry lacerated the quiet dark sky and flew to the remoteness… This is the first battle cry of Wu Renbao.

So reads The Road of Huaxi – half hero journey, half guru management text for the new socialist countryside. Cut away the cheese and there’s a unique story of how a destitute village manufactured its way into first-world affluence. Each Huaxi family is said to have at least US$250,000 in the bank. They receive free education and healthcare, and the village charters planes for old folks to take free tours abroad – all thanks to the astute guidance of ‘The Old Secretary,’ Wu Renbao.

A two-hour drive from Shanghai, Huaxi epitomizes the last 40 years in China, so they say. Wu realized early on that farming alone couldn’t move the village forward. In 1969, he led villagers to set up a secret factory to make screws (private enterprise was illegal then). After Reform and Opening Up, Wu’s administration helped turn the village into a multi-billion-dollar industrial center, mainly producing steel and textiles.

An ultimate testament to its success, Huaxi unveiled a 72-story tripod skyscraper topped with a gleaming yellow orb last month, the Long Wish Hotel International, billed as the 15th tallest building in the world (it’s the 42nd).

During opening weekend, 24-year-old Qu Xieyu zipped us around the village in his leather-interior Buick. After a three-year military stint, Qu came home, married and got a job as a business director at the Jiangyin Huaxi Chemical Wharf Company. He wears a gold watch and flips through pictures of his infant daughter on his iPhone.

“All the families know each other. Wu Renbao has visited our home before,” Qu says, standing in his living room next to a framed picture of Wu shaking hands with Hu Jintao. All the villagers have this photo in their homes, he says. The red Chinese character for double fortune hangs over a flat-screen TV with a hot pink, toddler-sized Audi parked below it.

Like most of the 2,000-some villagers, Qu lives in a neighborhood full of boxy Chinatized McMansions. Mercedes and BMWs line the curbs. Every family has at least one car.

It’s a short walk to the gargantuan tower from Qu’s home. After all, Huaxi is still a little village; residents have to drive to a nearby city if they want to visit a mall. The hotel is big on statement but short on details. The lobby is filled with offerings from well-wishers, including an RMB3 million (US$481,743) pair of metallic bulls from the city of Jiangyin.

Huaxi

Not to be outdone by outsiders, a one-ton gold ox worth RMB300 million (US$48 million) stands proud on the 60th floor; the village bought it as a 50th birthday present to itself. With the price of gold going up, they note that it’s proved a good investment.

Despite claims to be designed to “super-five-star standards,” rooms lack hairdryers and the locally-manufactured toilets take half an hour to refill. We commandeered a pitcher and removed the tank top to speed things up manually. One of the hotel’s four club levels has a faux garden path lined with plastic flowers; another has a depressing aviary filled with oversized metal cages.

Even outside the hotel, Huaxi lays out spectacle in spades. Visitors to the local World Park can stroll around a replica Arc de Triomphe or take a chairlift up to a Great Wall/Forbidden City combo site. The ride up lends views of a dilapidated rendition of the US Capitol Building. Lady Liberty stands on top of the dome. Near the park is a mini airport offering 15-minute helicopter sightseeing tours for RMB1,000 (US$160) (villagers get one free ride).

Huaxi’s boom times have enriched nearby villages as well, but the 84-year-old retired leader isn’t without critics. Some complain Wu’s closest relations get the plum jobs (his son is now the village chief) and the village’s tens of thousands of migrant workers don’t share in the wealth. Like migrants everywhere, they work long hours for meager wages and few holidays, but some said they were happy not to worry about if they’d be paid on time.

The village’s cash cow, iron and steel, has dropped off in recent years, plagued with rising competition and costs. They plan to diversify, already investing in an ocean transportation company, and villagers hope their super-sized hotel will turn Huaxi into a commodities exchange hub and boost tourism.

If you’re looking for something singular and weird, there’s no better weekend getaway.

That’s Shanghai, 2011

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