Huaxi supervillage: the new socialist countryside?

The 328 meter Huaxi Supertower. Photograph: KeystoneUSA-ZUMA/Rex Features

Next week we’ll be talking about China’s campaign, launched in 2006 to ‘build a new socialist countryside.’  In the popular Chinese press, probably the most spectacular ‘model’ of this campaign has been Huaxi Village in Jiangsu, the only village in the world to boast of a skyscraper taller than any building in London, Paris, or Tokyo.  According to China Daily the supertower is the world’s 15th tallest building.  And while there’s no accounting for architectural taste (the Huaxi Supertower looks more like a menacing robot capped by a disco ball), it is nevertheless an impressive feat for a village of 2,000 people.  Without any hint of irony, Huaxi Village Tourism Co. manager Zhou Li recently told China Daily that, “The building is a symbol of collectivism.”  Okaaaaay….

The Guardian‘s Jonathan Watts recently visited Huaxi, and filed this report.  Here are some highlights from his article:

Having been built up to the heavens during a period of global economic collapse, the megatower will be heralded as the latest symbol of China’s extraordinary economic expansion. But this bizarre new addition to the landscape also speaks volumes about the land pressures, environmental stress, inequality and rash investment that threaten the country’s long-term growth. The skyscraper will primarily be used as a gourmet dining hall and luxury hotel. Though many of those who live in its shadow earn less than £10 a day, there is no attempt to hide the wealth gap. From a gold leaf-covered reception to a 60th floor inlaid with genuine flakes of gold, the building exudes wealth and excess. Its proudest feature is a one-tonne, solid gold statue of an ox, said to be worth 300m yuan (£31m).  The mega-statistics do not stop there. With 826 bedrooms and dining facilities for 5,000 guests – including southern China’s biggest banquet hall – there is almost enough space to accommodate and feed all of the original village residents at a single sitting.

It is the brainchild of Wu Renbao, the driving force behind Huaxi’s 40-year transition from a small village to a multibillion-dollar conglomerate with interests in steel, shipping, tobacco and textiles. By turns a communist dictator, capitalist entrepreneur and self-help guru, the 84-year-old is among China’s most colourful characters. He is praised for turning Huaxi into one of the richest villages in China and enriching the original residents with annual shares, dividends and free overseas trips. He is also criticised for turning the community into a family fiefdom, in which workers get no holidays and his relatives get the best posts.

Five years ago, NPR’s Louisa Lim visited Huaxi.  Back then it was still a ‘model of prosperity’ (as opposed to, say, a model of flamboyant hubris).  You can listen to her report here.

From above, Huaxi looks like an American suburb. In China's richest village, each of the original residents lives in a villa. Every household owns one car; some own as many as three. Photo by Louisa Lim

Huaxi village in Jiangsu province doesn’t feel like a Chinese village at all. Visitors are greeted by row upon row of white houses with red roofs, and it looks more like American suburbia transplanted to the Chinese countryside.  Hundreds of official tour groups flock to Huaxi each day to learn about the village, even visiting the homes of “ordinary” residents. Sun Haiyan lives in one of these homes, which has three bedrooms and three living rooms, complete with leather sofas and crystal chandeliers. He also has three bathrooms, a card room, a gym with two treadmills, and five or six TVs — he can’t quite remember how many.

Wu Hao, 26, is another happy Huaxi resident. He has just returned from studying in New Zealand and runs one of the village’s import-export businesses. “As people know, Huaxi is the No. 1 village in our country,” he says. It’s hard to believe that Huaxi village was once poor. The secret to its phenomenal success was its move from agriculture to industry. Thirty years ago, the village was starting to behave more like a city — and look like one too, as it built factory after factory.

This move away from agriculture is the reason the villagers of Huaxi are so rich.

And yet, the industrialization of agriculture remains a potent theme in Huaxi, where giant pumpkins are again appearing in China’s countryside, thanks to advanced technology and, I suppose, the “spirit of collectivism” (hope you didn’t miss the irony this time).

Sun Haiyan poses with a 20-pound pumpkin grown in Huaxi's high-tech agricultural zone. Photo by Andrea Hsu/NPR. This photo is reminiscent of images from the Great Leap Forward era, when rapid collectivization was said to be achieving spectacular results in agriculture, like giant pumpkins (see photograph below).

Agricultural wonders from the Great Leap Forward. This image is from Jasper Becker's book Hungry Ghosts

And like the Great Pumpkin from the Great Leap Forward, there seems to be some fakery going on in Huaxi as well.  A recent post on China Economics Net (中国经济网) calls Huaxi a shanzhai 山寨 village.  Shanzhai is a term commonly used for knock-off products in China, like fake iphones; it literally means ‘mountain village’ (i.e. where bandits would traditionally hide out after raiding the wealthy plains communities).  Anyway, Huaxi has over the years amassed a collection of knock-off buildings and monuments.  They have their own Great Wall, Tiananmen Gate, and even a fake Arc de Triomphe and a fake US Capitol building (complete with Statue of Liberty on top).  Pictures of these buildings (and more!) have been collected on China Hush, and they were also featured in a 2008 post on the blog Chinese Archimage Phenomena.  Here’s one sample:

Fake US Capitol in Huaxi, with Statue of Liberty on top

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2 Responses to Huaxi supervillage: the new socialist countryside?

  1. Pingback: More on mimesis: China as Europe’s back-up disc | geography3822

  2. Pingback: More giant vegetables | geography3822

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