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It takes brains and guts
( 2003-08-19 11:17) (China Daily HK Edition)

One village. One person. One miracle. One controversy. Huaxi Village is at once admired and loathed, praised and denounced. China Daily senior writer Raymond Zhou  weighs up opinions on the man in charge and his economic marvel.

A bird's-eye view of Huaxi Village, where a gilded pagoda at the village centre is surrounded by single-family 'villas' of exactly the same design. [newsphoto.com.cn]

Wu Renbao is retiring. The aftershocks his announcement has created in the country's media circles is tantamount to what Bill Gates declaring his retirement would set off in the software industry. While Wu is not China's wealthiest person, he was head of one of China's richest villages.

Huaxi Village in Jiangyin County, Jiangsu Province, has fixed assets of 3 billion yuan (US$362 million). Home to 58 village-owned businesses, Huaxi is expected to generate 10 billion yuan (US$1.2 billion) in sales revenue for the year 2003.

If these numbers seem abstract, consider the following facts: every Huaxi villagers' household has each been assigned a car and a single-family home of 400 square metres; as to financial income, they earn around US$6,000 per head a year.

Compared with migrant workers who toil for an average monthly wage of 500 yuan (US$60), the prosperity enjoyed by Huaxi villagers is an undeniable miracle. Villagers are also guaranteed services ranging from power and gas to medical insurance.

Wu Renbao, who is 76 years old, once vowed to work in the official capacity of the village Communist Party secretary until he reached the age of 80. Surprisingly, he changed his mind on July 5, when he announced that he would step aside in favour of 39-year-old Wu Xie'en, his fourth son.

An official village election was held in which 100 per cent of the votes went to the son.

Political savvy

Most people praise the elder Wu for his sensitivity to market trends. In 1984, in the early years of the economic reform policy, he set up a factory to make fertilizer spray bottles, which contributed 2 million yuan (US$242,000) to the village coffers.

The village's former head Wu Renbao (left) passed on his leading role to his fourth son (right), Wu Xie'en, early last month.

However, media pundit Yan Lieshan attributes Wu's success more to his political savvy. "The kind of intelligence possessed by a farmer like Wu Renbao is no less than that held by any of China's self-important politicians or elitists. Whether it's a village or an enterprise, one needs brains to get ahead with economic achievements," says Yan. But he adds that it was "political and economic interaction" that made everything possible. "We all know that private enterprises are hard pressed for bank credit. Without political backing, how else would it have been possible for Huaxi to grow so fast?" asks Yan.

Yet Yan Lieshan, one of the most acclaimed commentators in China, does not resort to shredding Wu to pieces as did a China Central Television (CCTV) host who interviewed the controversial figure. Yan highlights a quote from Nanfang Weekend, in which Wu reportedly said, "To be a good local official, one has to keep in step with his superiors and, at the same time, be in step with the masses. If you see eye to eye only with your superiors, you're not a good cadre; but if you are in accord with only the masses, you won't last long."

"What political insight! This guy knows Chinese politics inside and out," Yan Lieshan emphasizes in an interview with China Daily.

The longevity of Wu Renbao's 48-year political career seems to attest to that.

Wu admitted in another media report that he exaggerated the village's level of production in the Great Leap Forward of 1958, but he later realized that following orders from above might lead him and his village down blind alleyways. So he resorted to a strategy of "outward obedience and secret independence". "If a policy does not suit our village, I will not implement it."

There is little doubt that Wu cares about the welfare of his villagers. During the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), he led some of them in a secret manufacturing operation - this at a time when such practices amounted to heresy. "I could not sit and watch my people starve to death. We were scared of being poor. And farming alone would never have led us out of poverty," said Wu.

Army compound

For all the wealth Wu has helped create for his village, no one has openly thanked him. Rather, no reporter can get access to a single villager to hear out his or her words of gratitude. Villagers are off-limits to the media, and no one from Huaxi is allowed to strike up a casual conversation with an outsider. Huaxi Village is managed as if it were an army compound.

Young performers meet foreign visitors to the village. Boasting an economic growth impressive in the opening and reform era while embracing a management mode of the past, Huaxi Village has become a sort of miracle in China. [newsphoto.com.cn]
But one can witness their full-blown appreciation during the village show, staged once in a while for villagers as well as visitors. Huaxi has its own performing arts troupe, with 61 members and a yearly budget of 3 million yuan (US$362,000). Wu Renbao doubles as the troupe's director. At least one song in each show is dedicated to his genius and exploits.

Gambling and drugs are strictly forbidden in the village. There is, in fact, no night life whatsoever. No Internet cafes or karaoke lounges. No bars or coffee shops. Anyone who engages in speculation will be driven out of the village, and his property confiscated.

But social interaction takes place in a wealth of meetings. Every morning before the work day begins, everyone studies the news and Wu Renbao's latest instructions; every weekend, a village assembly is held; and, every month, migrant workers who have jobs in the village have to sit through such a meeting.

Workers in the village are paid 50 per cent of their salaries, with the other half going to a special fund. Bonuses, which usually amount to three times the base salary, are paid at the end of the year , along with the salary that had been withheld. The workers are not paid in full, however, but receive just 20 per cent of those wages in cash. The rest is put into a stock fund. Other incomes, such as dividends and subsidies, are also subject to a significant degree of withholding.

If someone wishes to withdraw money from the fund, he must first fill out an application, which is then subject to the village committee's approval. When anyone leaves Huaxi Village, all of the money that belongs to him in the fund is expropriated along with the car and the house.

"Are Huaxi villagers happy under your very special and very militarized management?" asked Chen Dahui, the CCTV news talk show host.

Wu Renbao responded affirmatively. Then he defined "happiness" as "car, house, money, child and face". "If you have these five things, you are happy," claimed Wu. "When you make money by legal means, you can sleep easy and not have nightmares."

Many people seem to agree with him. Online postings lambasted the TV host for asking Wu so many tough questions. "Wu has brought prosperity to his people, and he has done it without breaking the law. I do not see anything wrong with it," writes one.

But experts find his methods harder to swallow. "The economic growth conceals the lack of concern for social, cultural and political needs. It puts individuality on the back burner," analyzes Li Jiangtao, a Communist Party official and a noted scholar on Marxist philosophy with the Guangzhou Academy of Social Sciences (GASS).

Li further explains that the central government's emphasis on "comprehensive development" includes not only pursuing material goods but other human needs as well. "What happens in Huaxi does not really reflect the true nature of citizenry in the modern sense. The mentality is more like that found in the subjects of a feudal ruler," Li clarifies.

Yan Lieshan is even harsher in his criticism. "Huaxi has a quasi-slavery system. No weekends. No vacations. No privacy. Everyone listens to one omnipresent and omnipotent god. And a person has to give up much of his freedom in exchange for a relatively well-off standard of living."

Heated debate

In a discussion arranged specially for China Daily, three political scientists from Guangzhou-based Sun Yatsen University shared their opinions of what some call the "Number One Village in China" and reflected on its ramifications.

Associate Professor Xie Xiafei grew up in a rural area. "I know firsthand that people like Wu Renbao are doing the right thing. Do farmers in China need democracy? Well, democracy is a lofty ideal, but it is not practical at this stage. I've seen so many village elections. They are easily manipulated by the biggest clan in the village. As a result, we have non-stop in-fighting and violence. Allow me to be blunt - China's farmers do not have the ability to think 'big'. Their elections are fiascos. They need a wise leader, a 'good emperor' so to speak, who can lead them to a good life. If you want me to choose between a good material life and certain political rights, I'll go for the material life any day. And I'm positive most farmers would agree with me."

Dr Guo Zhenglin, director of the Local Governance Research Institute, said that Huaxi is a model of traditional village governance. "Huaxi's success cannot be duplicated because it depends on the flair and personality of one person. It is an anomaly. It is really hard to say whether it's good or bad."

Professor Xiao Bin, dean of the Political and Public Affairs Department, calls the Huaxi model "a freak on the verge of extinction". "Special conditions are necessary for a fossilized political structure and an economic miracle to occur simultaneously. It should not be promoted elsewhere."

When asked about the possibility that Huaxi will develop a truly democratic mechanism in future, Xie Xiafei replied: "When its political system becomes a hindrance to its economic growth, it will take a step forward. But right now, I do not see the need."

Meanwhile, Professor Li Jiangtao of GASS, who has made a close study of village elections in Guangdong Province, contends that China's rural areas should "import" cultural and political reform to bring village management into the modern era.

"Do not think that GDP growth is everything. Economic development can be learned and duplicated. But if you leave progress in other areas to the goodness and personal integrity of one official, that is a high price to pay for economic growth."

Wu Renbao, in his televised rebuttal, proudly said that neighbouring villages were learning from Huaxi. "They all want to be like Huaxi."

Soundbytes about Huaxi

They (other villages) all want to be like Huaxi.
- WU RENBAO, former Party secretary of the Huaxi Village

Are Huaxi villagers happy under your very special and very militarized management?
- CHEN DAHUI, a CCTV news talk show host

They (Chinese farmers) need a wise leader, a 'good emperor' so to speak, who can lead them to a good life.
- XIE XIAFEI, associate professor, the Sun Yatsen University

Huaxi's success cannot be duplicated because it depends on the flair and personality of one person. It is an anomaly. It is really hard to say whether it's good or bad.
- GUO ZHENGLIN, director of the Local Governance Research Institute of the Sun Yatsen University

The Huaxi model is 'a freak on the verge of extinction'. Special conditions are necessary for a fossilized political structure and an economic miracle to occur simultaneously. It should not be promoted elsewhere.
- XIAO BIN, dean of the Political and Public Affairs Department, from the Sun Yatsen University

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