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    The Mao Statue at the Center of a Village’s Road to Riches

    A billionaire-turned-local official is banking on the spirit of Mao Zedong — and a future railway — to make villagers into millionaires.

    HEBEI, North China — On a clear fall day, an excavator rumbles before rows of nearly completed high-rises. Across the road, a brand-new 6-meter-tall statue of Mao Zedong oversees the construction work from a giant pedestal in the center of a sizeable square.

    For 48-year-old Bai Liguo, Party secretary and head of the Liuxianzhuang village committee, the luxury apartments and the bronze likeness of China’s late revolutionary leader are not in contradiction: The real estate projects are part of Bai’s plan for all the roughly 2,000 villagers to get rich together, an ideal he believes Mao embodied.

    “I am here for the greater development of the village, to serve the villagers, and to make money and let all of them spend the money,” Bai tells Sixth Tone, sitting in his office under a huge portrait of Mao in a gilded frame. A self-made billionaire through his fireworks business, Bai has been at the helm of Liuxianzhuang since January 2009, when he won the local election with a pledge to bring greater prosperity.

    Bai, who prefers cotton jackets to silk suits, doesn’t come across as a smooth-talking businessman, but he has made the villagers a lofty promise of “double millions”: By 2020, pledged Bai, each household in the village will own property worth 1 million yuan ($150,000) and have the same amount in their bank accounts. In addition, he voiced his expectation that Liuxianzhuang, located in the countryside near Tangshan, one of Hebei province’s biggest cities, will grow into a town or even a small city in the long term.

    Nearly nine years later, the “double millions” have yet to materialize. “They sound like myths to the villagers right now,” Bai says. Still, the average yearly income did rise to more than 20,000 yuan per capita in 2016, nearly double the national average — in part because Bai’s company opened businesses in Liuxianzhuang. Nearly all the villagers have moved into modern apartment buildings, though the average value of each home remains under 100,000 yuan — less than a tenth of the promised 1 million.

    “The people won’t believe it until the funds are safely in their pockets,” Bai says. But he remains confident about fulfilling his promise and, as he tends to do in conversations, draws an analogy between his current challenges and those of Mao. “Who could have thought that Mao Zedong could eventually liberate China in 1949 when he had to flee from an overwhelming enemy pursuing him in 1947?” Bai says, referring to a period of the Chinese civil war when the Nationalists occupied Yan’an, then the de facto capital of the areas under Communist rule.

    Bai has also promoted Communist ideology, or “red culture,” in Liuxianzhuang as a cure to what he sees as villagers’ inability to improve their lot. “They are hard to manage,” Bai says, “because they take a laissez-faire approach to their own lives.” Villagers, he says, don’t plan for their futures and think they can do whatever they please as long as they don’t violate the law.

    To demonstrate his faith in Liuxianzhuang’s bright future, Bai in September had the bronze Mao statue erected in the village’s Red Culture Square. The statue is a certified replica of the one built in 1993 in Shaoshan, Mao’s hometown in central China’s Hunan province, according to Bao Junli, who manages the village square. Smaller Mao likenesses can be found throughout Liuxianzhuang, including in public places like restaurants.

    Erecting large Mao statues was once commonplace in China, especially during the frantic Cultural Revolution years of the 1960s and early ’70s, when adoration of the chairman became worship. After he died in 1976, however, the building of new statues stopped, and some have since been torn down. But support for Mao and Maoism is on the rise in rural areas, and new statues have sprung up in recent years: Two were erected in 2013 and 2014 in villages in Hebei and neighboring Henan. Last year, also in Henan, a giant golden likeness of the late leader that received international media attention was torn down because it lacked official approval. Liuxianzhuang’s bronze edition has largely flown under the media’s radar, save for a few niche websites that cater to Maoists.

    But Bai isn’t merely betting on a heady mix of ideology and nostalgia. When he took office in 2009, Liuxianzhuang was an inconspicuous village where people lived off the land, a place that had largely been ignored by China’s rapid economic growth. But Bai had discovered what he calls “a great business opportunity.” A year earlier, plans had been announced for a new high-speed railway connecting Beijing and Tangshan that would pass through the area, including a train station built off the southern tip of the village near a large marketplace for daily commodities.

    Construction on the railway began last year, and Bai is certain all this development will spill over into Liuxianzhuang. The village’s land has been freed up in advance: Back in 2009, all 525 Liuxianzhuang households lived in one-story brick-and-tile homes built across 51 hectares, according to Bai. As of August 2013, almost all families had moved into a few six-story apartment buildings that together take up only 11 hectares. Meanwhile, each household exchanged its shares of the now-available land for stock in a company Bai established to develop and sell residential and commercial properties. If the buildings and land rise in value, the company will, too — and the villagers will get rich, believes Bai.

    So far, Bai has invested more than 300 million yuan of his own funds in the various projects that have almost completely urbanized the village. It’s unclear whether he’ll ever make a profit, but he explains his strategy using another civil war analogy: “The heroes during China’s War of Liberation were not afraid to sacrifice their lives as long as victory could be achieved.”

    Bai’s efforts have recently started to bear some fruit. About 95 percent of the new apartments at the development site opposite the bronze Mao statue had been sold as of October, according to Li Xucheng, a real estate consultant for the project’s property developer. At another project in the village, all the apartments in the first of three phases have been sold, according to real estate consultant Wang Jiaqi. “Many people from outside the village came to buy the apartments,” she says, “because they believe the apartments will appreciate in value.”

    The recent progress has given more villagers faith in Bai’s “double millions” approach. Liu Ronggang, a 65-year-old villager who works in a souvenir shop at Red Culture Square, sees becoming rich together as a solution to social ills. “The wide disparity between rich and poor is a cause of instability,” he says, adding that the village won’t go wrong if people remember Mao Zedong’s theories on equality.

    The deadline for the grand plan, 2020, is also the railway station’s scheduled completion date. “I’m a businessman,” says Bai. “I felt it was worth investing.”

    Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.

    (Header image: A statue of Mao Zedong stands at a restaurant in Liuxianzhuang Village, Tangshan, Hebei province, Oct. 23, 2017. Yan Jie/Sixth Tone)