Originally published in The Hindu on February 6, 2007

ROW AFTER row of two storey mansions with shingled roofs, stucco walls, and the occasional mock Tudor turret. A picture perfect slice of American suburbia, except only a few metres to the south of this idyll the smokestacks of steel works belch out black vaporous clouds while to its north the Great Wall of China rubs shoulders with the Sydney Opera House.

This is the quixotic world of what is officially China's richest village, Huaxi. Its enterprises collectively earned 40 billion yuan ($5 billion) in sales last year. Every one of Huaxi's 2,000 residents lives in 600 square metre homes, owns at least a couple of cars, and has assets worth a million yuan ($125,000). The average per capita income of these villagers is $10,000 a year, almost 50 times that of the average Chinese farmer.

It is clear that Huaxi folk are no ordinary peasants. They are, in fact, successful industrialists who trade with countries across the world from India to Spain and who own factories in places as far flung as Vietnam and Mexico. But to add to the already complex plot, the villagers are no ordinary industrialists either.

All the land in Huaxi, which is located in China's Jiangsu province, is communally owned and the majority of the needs of the villagers are communally met. In a throw-back to the Maoist heyday in China, they are provided with free healthcare and education by the village commune itself, in addition to pensions and an allowance of some 3,000 yuan ($370) a year for food.

In short, Huaxi defies categorisation and the village has been mixing ideological cocktails for over 40 years, sometimes in open defiance of the prevailing political climate in the country.

At the helm in the village is the 80-year-old former party secretary Wu Renbao, who is credited with more or less single-handedly having steered Huaxi's people out of rags and into Rolls Royces. Once reviled as a capitalist-roader for his pro-business leanings, today Mr. Wu is hailed by China's authorities as a model worker and Huaxi is upheld as an example of what Beijing means by its recent vow to build a "new socialist countryside."

Mr. Wu, who was the village's Communist Party secretary from its founding in 1961 until 2003, is a uniquely entrepreneurial bureaucrat. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-77), a time when money was a dirty word, he disregarded the established orthodoxy and started up a machine parts factory, allowing Huaxi to make enough money to escape the worst of the period.

He cackles in pure glee when he recalls what he terms his "secret factory" and how whenever county officials came to visit the village, he would quickly send away the workers to till the fields, bringing them back to the factory once the officials had left. The factory had purpose-built high walls and a single, unimposing entrance, Mr. Wu explains, and it was thus able to avoid detection.

After China embarked on its economic reforms, Mr. Wu once again bucked the nationwide trend and instead of dividing up village land and handing it over to individual households for farming, he decided to keep the land communal. His focus, however, was away from agriculture and towards developing industry.

"I have always been a good communist," says Mr. Wu, "because I have always served the people and tried to make everyone happy and rich." He adds, "I believe in practice, not theory and in learning what's best for my village from facts rather than theoretical formulations."

Mr. Wu's manner is folksy and his gentle smile reveals worn-down, stained teeth. Dressed in simple peasant garb, at odds with the flashy surroundings of the gleaming pagoda-style hotel in which the interview takes place, he has an avuncular look suited to his village nickname of "Lao Shu Shu" or senior uncle.

But over the years several Chinese commentators have pointed out that Mr. Wu's disarming charm, hides a canny and even ruthless politician who is probably better connected than his rustic appearance reveals.

Indeed, despite repeatedly flouting central party directives Mr. Wu never lost his job and Huaxi's enterprises were able to grow quickly and strongly through the 1980s, even as private enterprises in other parts of the country struggled to get access to credit.

Asked to explain how he was able to retain his position through the ups and downs of China's recent history, Mr. Wu is dismissive and only says, "I have never been afraid to lose my job."

Under Mr. Wu's watchful eye, an umbrella company for Huaxi's village enterprises, the Huaxi Group, was established in 1994 and today it boasts of over 60 companies, mostly dealing in textiles and iron and steel. In 1999, the Huaxi Group became the first village enterprise to list itself on a stock exchange.

Seven years on, all Huaxi villagers must buy into the company's shares. They can then use these shares to buy more houses and cars from the village.

Complex concept of ownership

The concept of "ownership" in Huaxi is complex. Villagers earn a small salary in cash from the company they work for, but the majority of their wealth comes from a substantial bonus and the dividends from their stock. However, 80 per cent of their bonus must compulsorily be reinvested in the commune. Despite being millionaires on paper, the villagers are, in fact, only allowed to receive a total of 30,000 RMB ($3,700) a year in cash, including salary and dividends. If they leave the village, all their paper assets are forgone in addition to their villas and cars.

Mr. Wu says the secret of Huaxi's success lies in his agnosticism towards different ideological "isms." "What is capitalism? What is communism? The only `ism' I believe in is making people rich," he laughs. Then more seriously, "Everything has its good points and bad points. Our villagers get dividends from shares, that's Capitalist. They also get free healthcare and education, which is Communist. Moreover, they get a salary and bonus, which is Socialist. We just take the best and reject the worst of everything."

But Mr. Wu misses out another `ism," one that he has also been accused of feudalism. Huaxi is in many ways a Wu family fiefdom. When Mr. Wu retired in 2003, his fourth son Wu Xie'en took over the reins as party leader. The village's top posts are peppered with Mr. Wu's relatives. Moreover, while all of the village's official residents enjoy a life of luxury, more than 25,000 migrant workers toil in the village's factories, performing all the menial jobs and living in over-crowded, shack-like structures.

Mr. Wu's eyes glint cold for a quick moment when asked to respond to these charges. "Power in Huaxi is not with the Wu family," he says. "Power is with the family that has served Huaxi village for more than 40 years. If there were more families like us, all of China would be rich."

According to Mr.Wu, Huaxi's migrants are no worse off than those that work in other Chinese boomtowns. Moreover, it's possible for them to apply to the village party committee for permanent residency if they have worked in Huaxi for at least 5 years, have a university education, and believe in the "Huaxi way of life." Some 600 former migrants have been accepted into the village since it was founded.

One former migrant who is now the head of Huaxi's Publicity department is Sun Hai Yen. Mr. Sun says he began his career in Huaxi as a janitor.

Today, his sprawling villa boasts of three sitting rooms adorned with Grecian pillars and diaphanous chandeliers, two dining rooms, three bathrooms fitted with Jacuzzis, a game room, a private gymnasium, and so many flat screen TVs that he can't even remember the number.

"I really, really wanted to become a Huaxi villager," says Mr. Sun, his eyes screwed up in earnestness. "I worked very hard to get accepted [by the village], because I really, really, wanted this life," he continues as we drive past an amusement park area with replicas of Beijing's Great Wall and Tiananmen Square, Paris' Arc de Triomphe, and Washington DC's Capitol building. The latest addition to the park is a 40 million yuan ($5 million), 148-tonne, bronze bell. Beyond the park lies a museum-like tract of land where the village grows a few fruits and vegetables so that children can come and see what farming looked like in the old days.

No place for the lazy

The "Huaxi way of life" that Mr. Wu insists all villagers must follow, is a strictly regimented one. Villagers are in bed by ten, and up by six. Few have weekends off and nightlife is prohibited lest it distract people from their jobs. "We don't allow people to be lazy here," says Mr. Wu. "The only people with freedom are the jobless and we don't want that kind of freedom here."

Not that the villagers themselves appear to be complaining. Almost none choose to leave and thousands of others are queuing up to enter.

At the end of the interview Mr. Wu turns to this correspondent and guffaws, "Everyone in this village earns more money than you do!" An indisputable, if unhappy, fact.