Wu Renbao was educated locally.
A socialist throughout his 50-year career, Wu Renbao joined the Chinese Communist Party in October 1954, and was appointed Party chief of Huaxi village in 1961. Three years later, Wu and other village leaders formualted a 15-year development plan for Huaxi village. Equipped with both political intelligence and business acumen, Wu adopted a strategy of ‘outward obedience and secret independence’ (China Daily News, 2003). Realizing that traditional agriculture would never move his people out of poverty, he disregarded official government policy and started up a secret machine parts factory in 1969, in the heyday of the Cultural Revolution (1966–76) when money-making was despised. After the national economic reform was launched in the late 1970s, Wu once again bucked the trend of dividing up and distributing village land for individual household farming. Instead he decided to keep the land communal and shifted focus from agriculture to developing industry. In 1984, Wu set up a successful operation making fertilizer spray bottles, generating a net profit of 2 million yuan ($242 000) for the village.
Reportedly a leader with strict self-discipline, Wu devoted his wisdom and energy towards providing a good material life for all his villagers. ‘No matter whether it’s a new kind of ism or an old kind of ism, our aim is to make everyone rich’ (Watts, 2005). Wu’s approach to prosperity and glory was to combine the strict political control of the ruling Communist Party with the get-rich-quick economics of the market, a model later hailed for the whole country to follow. With most of its labor force devoted to industry, the village has established enterprises one after another in textiles, metals, and machinery. Under Wu, large-scale aquaculture production was also undertaken. The rise of industry paved the way for the stable development of modern agriculture, and Huaxi quickly became the biggest township enterprise group at the village level in Jiangsu Province. In 1995, Huaxi became the first commune in China to list shares on a stock exchange. By 2005, Huaxi had fixed assets exceeding 7 billion yuan ($870 million), and was home to 58 village-owned businesses. Each household has been assigned a car and a single-family, two-storey house of 400 square meters with landscaped lots and guaranteed power and gas services. The entire population of 30 000 has health insurance and pensions, and annual per capita income has risen to $8000, seven times the national average and 20 times the average for farmers.
Huaxi was proclaimed as a model of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ (Ibid.) and tens of thousands of people from all over China began to flock to the village each year to see Wu and his phenomenal achievement. Honored as a ‘National Model Worker’ and ‘Outstanding CCP Member’ of Jiangsu Province, Wu was recognized for his integrity, managerial flair, and contributions to poverty alleviation and township enterprise development. Currently, Wu is a member of the Jiangsu Provincial Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, President of the National Research Institute of Well-Off Villages, Vice President of the China Association for Poverty Alleviation and Development, Deputy Board Chairman and Deputy General Manager of the Huaxi Group.
Wu Renbao joined the Chinese Communist Party in October 1954.
In spite of being hailed as a national hero, Wu has also generated much controversy, and his system of management has been criticized as feudal, resembling the old imperial dynasties rather than communism. Not only are some of the top village posts held by his relatives, but Wu himself was succeeded by his fourth son in 2003 with 100 percent of communal votes. While all the village’s official residents enjoy a life of luxury, thousands more migrant workers labor in the village’s factories, performing all kinds of manual jobs and living in overcrowded, shabby structures.
The village is managed as if it were an army compound, where gambling and drugs are strictly forbidden, and no one is allowed to strike up a casual conversation with an outsider. Bars and restaurants are ordered to close before 10 pm so that workers do not oversleep. While residents are nominally richer than those of any other community, villagers get little cash from their paper assets, as 80 percent of their bonuses and 95 percent of their dividends must be reinvested in the commune. Huaxi under Wu has been described as both a ‘paradise’ and a ‘dictatorship.’