The Richest Reds in China

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Courtesy of the Huaxi Government

The town of Huaxi, China.

"We have a national slogan: Build the Socialist Countryside!" explained Sun Hai Yan, a member of the local government in Huaxi. "Others build socialism on the ground. We go one step further and build a new socialism in the sky."

The "socialism in the sky" to which Sun refers, is a planned complex of 72-storey towers that could be deemed a monument to Deng Xiaoping's notion that "to be rich is glorious." Plans call for three glass-and-steel towers linked by bridges and topped by a giant, disco ball-inspired sphere. It will be surrounded by a moat and will house several hundred apartments, a luxury hotel, a revolving restaurant, a gym, a doctor's office and a tanning salon.

Welcome to the Chinese countryside — or, at least, to its richest village. Located in rural Jiangsu province about 85 miles up a dusty highway from Shanghai, Huaxi's 60,000 residents earn a per capita income seven times the national average. They have health insurance, pensions and two-car garages. And soon, also, a chance to live in one of the world's tallest buildings.

Huaxi got a head start on sky-high socialism in 1969, when Communist Party secretary Wu Renbao founded a village-owned textile factory — a rarity at the time. Gradually, the town switched from agriculture to manufacturing, embracing urbanization amid the pro-agrarian orthodoxy of China's Cultural Revolution. The move paid off. In the 1990s, it became the first commune in China to list shares on a stock exchange.

Huaxi has used its wealth to build what might be described as a socialist Disneyland. Residents own shares and earn bonuses pegged to performance, but they must put 95% of their dividend and 80% of their bonus back into the town. This leaves plenty of cash for pet projects. In the village's central plaza oversized statues of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping gaze out at replicas of the U.S Capitol Building and France's Arc du Triomphe. Nearby, the world's largest copper bell tolls for good luck.

It may once have been avante garde, but today Huaxi's blend of dizzy materialism and communist control is no longer out of step with the rest of China. Every year, the town welcomes 2 million visitors, most of whom are Communist Party officials on state-sponsored tours.

Guests are treated to an hour-long musical theater piece about the town's history and progress. When they leave the 1,200-seat auditorium, the show's honky tonk-meets-Peking opera soundtrack blares through loudspeakers, echoing across tidy rows of red-roofed, three-storey homes.

The only place the town's booming soundtrack can't be heard is the site of the soon-to-be towers. There, near a concrete hole reminiscent of an open-pit mine, clusters of laborers pour cement and lash lengths of bamboo. Director of Construction Qiu Juping says it will take 1,500 workers five years to finish. These workers, imported from across the country, join 25,000 other migrant laborers to keep Huaxi afloat. They know building the tower will be tough, and potentially dangerous, but say they're proud to be part of something big. "I feel honored to do this job," explained Guo Jianbo, a 29-year-old steel worker. "To work on such a great building is a rare chance in one's lifetime."

Deputy Party Secretary Zhou Li agrees. Foreign-educated and fluent in English, she's proud of the tower, and of her town. People need something to believe in, she reasons, and record-breaking towers inspire faith. "Even I have religion now," she said with a laugh. "My religion is the Communist Party." And with that, she climbs into her very red Audi A4, and speeds away.