At dinner that first night we started to realize that there was much more to Huaxi village than most might realize. For one the village leader offered us the choice between Huaxi Wuliangye (a famous brand of baijiu) or Huaxi Changyu (a famous brand of red wine in China). The dinner included a variety of local specialties, including a kind of Yangtze river puffer fish that is poisonous if not prepared correctly. “Our chef is one of the highest ranking chefs in China,” the village leader said as he raised his glass for the umpteenth toast. I’ve lived in Chinese villages, and this was completely different.
It wasn’t until we got to Huaxi’s memorial hall that we fully realized we were in some kind of Potemkin village. At the entrance we were greeted by quotes from both Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, one simply said, “Huaxi village is blessed, blessed, truly blessed.”
The story seems to be that sometime in the late 70’s the head of the village had a dream of making everyone of the farmers wealthy. So when Deng Xiaoping opened China up to foreign investment Huaxi Cun opened factories. Through their hard work, advanced agricultural techniques, and sticking to the village head’s 10 ways of getting rich advice (big surprise that loving socialism and loving China are both very important for development), Huaxi is now the Number One Village in China.
When I asked how it was that this little village of 50,000 people was so rich, my co-worker said it was because they worked seven days a week. “So the national gov’t doesn’t give them any money?” I asked.
“No,” her husband said, “they are rich because they work 7 days a week.”
“Oh, very good,” I said staring at the model for their new tower.
The next day we had a chance to visit the model greenhouse that demonstrated the advanced agricultural techniques that had helped the village become so rich. I don’t know if I was expecting robots, tractors, or some kind of high tech watering system, but I was more than a little disappointed at what we saw: just a big greenhouse. Even the giant pumpkin they were so proud of wasn’t as impressive as the dozens (literally dozens) of billboards around town had led us to believe. Sure, it was 300 pounds, but my wife’s family had grown bigger on their small farm in Iowa.
From there we headed to Huaxi’s outpatient medical center. It struck me as more than a little strange that their PET/CT was located conveniently in the lobby. My co-worker informed me that this town of 50,000 had already purchased a PET/CT before our hospital that serves more than 2,000,000 had even been approved to acquire one. “We do almost 20 PET scans every day,” the local doctor told us.
“Is that for diagnosis, or just for routine check ups?” I asked.
“All of the farmers are entitled to a free PET scan every year as a part of their check up,” he said, “for people from outside of the village one scan costs over 7,500rmb.”
For those of you less familiar with these kinds of equipment, a PET scan requires that you be injected with a small amount of radioactive material, and is of little use in a general check up. Essentially Huaxi is irradiating villagers just to show off, but because of their free healthcare, life expectancy in the village is around 80, matching Beijing and Shanghai.
One woman just turned 100 years old, and to celebrate her birthday each person in her family was given 10,000rmb (more than many farmers make in 2 years). “This teaches people to respect their elders,” my co-worker said. I couldn’t resist pointing out the picture next to the old woman’s showing a village leader offering several old men cigarettes, I’m not sure how many centenarians they could afford.
This wasn’t the only way local gov’t flashed their money. A park had been built featuring crude representations of famous buildings from around the world. At the village leader’s own birthday party he handed out hongbao (red envelopes) to each of his hundreds of guests, inside was 2,000rmb.
As we left the village, it seemed dirtier than before. The facade was crumbling, and the cracks on the outside of the villas showed that the village was hiding far more than we were going to uncover in a few days. Luckily for us, we’ll be invited back in a few months when the tower is complete.
Tomorrow we’ll be looking at some of the questions Huaxi Cun raises as a “model village”