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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 12, 2006

China points to its richest village

By Edward Cody
Washington Post

HUAXI, China Wu Renbao saw the future of his little village long ago, and it worked. It worked so well that Huaxi has become the richest village in China.

As a result, Huaxi has been cited by Communist Party leaders as an example of what they mean when they vow to build a "new socialist countryside" to help farmers share in China's prosperity, and to halt the protests and riots that have erupted with increasing frequency across the country.

Although it is doubtful Huaxi's exceptional wealth can be duplicated everywhere, the transformation of this community, in Jiangsu province, 85 miles northwest of Shanghai, has inspired imitation in a number of villages. In the process, it has opened a window on what China's Communist Party hopes will be the future of this huge, fast-growing nation.

Huaxi's success story began in 1969, when Wu, who was the local party secretary, overcame bitter opposition from Cultural Revolution extremists to start a village-owned textile factory. The village took off a decade later when, again under Wu's leadership, Huaxi residents decided against dividing communal land into family farms, as encouraged under the economic reforms then getting started. They opted to retain village control, retire their plows and build more factories, embracing urbanization instead of fighting it as millions of farmers with family plots have done in recent years.

The decision to stay communal and branch out from agriculture coincided with the rising tide of China's new economy, as liberalizing reforms spread through the 1980s and '90s. Without questioning the party's political control, Huaxi has ridden the economic wave ever since. The community has founded eight large corporations, with earnings of $3.8 billion, and relegated farming to a museum-like tract of land where children come to see what squash and mango plants look like.

Annual per capita income has grown to $8,000, village leaders said, seven times the national average and 20 times the average for farmers. Many townspeople, although still classified as peasants, are now managers, living in two-story houses on landscaped lots reminiscent of American suburbs. The Huaxi government has made sure the entire population of 30,000 has health insurance and pensions, things many of China's 750 million farmers only dream about.

"Huaxi is the No. 1 village in China. That means rich," boasted Sun Haiyan, Wu's 26-year-old grandson, who studied in New Zealand and now runs a village-owned import-export business.

The children of Huaxi enjoy not only well-equipped schools with bilingual Chinese-English classes but also an amusement park that features replicas of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, the U.S. Capitol and Beijing's Tiananmen gate.

Local party cadres from across China have taken to visiting Huaxi by the busload, seeking to learn from Wu's success. More than a million people visited here in 2005, village leaders said, and the number is expected to rise to 1.8 million this year because of President Hu Jintao's emphasis on rural reforms and the drumbeat of propaganda about the "new socialist countryside."

Wu, 79 but still quick and tart, addressed several hundred of the visitors last week, repeating party catchwords such as "scientific development" and "democratic administration" as he urged them to follow Huaxi's entrepreneurial example. His eyes sparkled and he flashed his brown teeth in frequent smiles as he described Huaxi's meteoric rise from poor farm village to industrial park.

"Every month we change things in Huaxi," he said. "Every year, things are better."

His 30-minute homily finished, Wu turned the stage over to a performance of political theater, complete with bubble machines and girls in diaphanous costumes. To recorded music, young dancers and acrobats pranced about, singing the praises of socialism, enterprise and Huaxi's hybrid of the two.

"We don't worry if the factories are free enterprise, we don't worry if the factories are socialist," went one refrain. "We would just worry if there were no factories."

What the visitors see here resembles nothing so much as a company town run by a patriarchal family with a successful business and strict loyalty to the political system. Wu recently turned over management of Huaxi to his fourth son, Wu Xie'en, 39, who is party secretary. In an interview, the younger Wu said that despite the title, his guiding principle was not doctrine but efficiency.

"If you go talk to a farmer about Marxism or Leninism, he won't know what you're talking about," he said. "But if you say socialism is about trying to create a happy life for him, then he knows what you mean."

The elder Wu said in an interview that he had no trouble persuading Huaxi's farmers to forgo control over their land 25 years ago. By then, he said, the first factory was already producing more for villagers' pockets than their fields were, so the idea of turning to industry was appealing even to tradition-minded farmers.

"If you just grow crops, you don't really have a very rich life," he said, still dressed like a farmer on a Sunday outing, in a plain gray jacket and rubber-soled slippers that sell for less than $1. "You've got to have money. Without money, everything is just empty words."