Mr. Zhang Builds His Dream Town

A singing workforce, Mongolian millionaires in Porsches, and saving the planet—inside the empire of a Chinese tycoon with more than money on his mind
A Versailles-like palace at Broad Town hosts corporate training
From Atlantic Unbound:

Slideshow: "At Home With Mr. Zhang"

The Atlantic national correspondent James Fallows narrates photos from Chinese tycoon Zhang Yue's one-of-a-kind contemporary town.

The first time I met the Chinese tycoon Zhang Yue, he was showing guests the Versailles-style palace he has built on his estate. This was happening far from the coastal cities where so much of China’s new wealth and glitter are on display. On a pleasant weekend last fall—“pleasant” with allowances for the opaque brown sky—Zhang (his family name) had invited three dozen fellow Chinese millionaires to join him at “Broad Town,” the place where he lives and where Broad Air Conditioning, which he owns and runs, is based. Broad Town is on the outskirts of Changsha, a city known by few people outside China even though its population is roughly as large as New York’s. In China, Changsha is famous as the capital of Hunan province and one of the places where the young Mao Zedong lived and worked. A twenty-three-foot-high statue of Mao, long a fixture in the city square, was recently re-covered in pure gold.

The event at Broad Town was a “luxury weekend” organized by Zhang and Jet Asia-Pacific magazine, a publication designed to introduce business jets and the associated lifestyle to “Asia-based High Net Worth Individuals” who are newly able to afford such products. Guests were flown in from across China, free, on private jets. On Saturday, foreign airplane manufacturers like Gulfstream, Bombardier, and Cessna displayed their latest products, and the French industrialist Serge Dassault, whose Falcon jets sell for tens of millions of dollars, described the joys of air travel without the airlines. This is largely a theoretical pleasure in China, where the People’s Liberation Army still tightly controls airspace and discourages private flights. But a few private jets, among them one owned by Zhang, already crisscross the country, and China’s current Five Year Plan calls for airspace controls to be relaxed so a personal-airplane industry can arise. Niu Gengsheng, the CEO of a group that controls one of China’s largest dairy-products companies, was among the several guests from Inner Mongolia (charmingly, his family name means “cow”). He told Jet Asia-Pacific that the conference had helped him understand “the rationale behind the acquisition of such an essential business tool.”

It was the aviation aspect of the event that got me there, by chance. I had agreed to help ferry a small Cirrus airplane that was part of the luxury weekend display from Changsha to its next destination, the Zhuhai Air Show in far southern China, near Macau. (The Cirrus was the same kind of plane I had owned and piloted in the United States.) But the weekend, I learned on arrival in Broad Town, was not just about airplanes. On Saturday evening, after the display, more than fifty guests and exhibitors dined at one long banquet table, in a marble-floored chamber that had been designed by Zhang’s wife, Lai Yujing, and resembles a palazzo in Tuscany.

Then on Sunday morning, the guests took test drives in brand-new Porsche racing cars—bright yellow, red, lustrous black—along an improvised course made by closing off a public street adjoining Broad Town. A Hummer was also part of the fleet. As each car rolled in at the end of a circuit, a small clash of cultures could be observed. The Chinese millionaires, used to doing what they wanted the instant it occurred to them, would stride to the driver’s side of the car, past anyone who happened to be waiting in line. Then a member of Porsche’s professional-driver team would look for a tactful way to guide the guest to the passenger’s side for a first, instructional run through the slalom cones and rapid-acceleration zones on the course.

After a few hours of driving, the guests went to Broad Town’s Mediterranean Club, which had one wood-paneled room full of long, narrow felt-covered tables for snooker and a similar room with squarer, squatter felt-covered tables for playing pool. (Plus bowling alleys, a vast and modern indoor swimming pool, antique Chinese furniture and statues, and so forth; the facilities are open to all company employees.) A huge video screen at the back of the room ran footage about Sunseeker motor yachts, the maritime equivalent of private jets. On leather seats in the clubhouse’s bar, the guests sat down to a tasting of $250-a-bottle French wine, poured by a young duo from Hong Kong. One of the wine merchants was British and looked like Prince William; as he described each wine in Chinese, his partner, a chic Chinese woman, went around the room pouring the wine. A few minutes into the tasting, the guests were summoned for lunch, and they carried along their glasses of 1994 Château Latour to enjoy with mouth-burning Hunan dishes.

After lunch, Zhang thanked the guests for coming and invited them to spend time seeing some of the other highlights of Broad Town: the 130-foot-high gold-colored replica of an Egyptian pyramid, for instance, or the life-sized bronze statues of forty-three inspirational leaders from different eras and different cultures, from Confucius and Socrates to the Wright Brothers, Mahatma Gandhi, Rachel Carson, and Jack Welch. Later in the afternoon, one of the company helicopters came in for a landing not far from the Mediterranean Club. A group of guests ran toward the helipad to meet it—Zhang, in shirt and tie, running faster than anyone else, and grinning like a happy little boy.

The next time I met Zhang Yue was in Shanghai, at the China International Luxury Property Show, where resort properties from around the world—villas in France, ski lodges in Canada—were up for sale. His company was displaying its new line of home air conditioners in a small structure that got a large amount of attention because of two young female Broad employees who stood on its roof in skintight white bare-midriff outfits, playing electric violin and viola on numbers ranging from Bach to Grace Jones. (Or appearing to play: they were actually violin-synching—not that anyone cared.)

Zhang breezed smilingly past me and another foreigner who had come to see him. “Five minutes!” he said in Chinese, and spent the next half hour roaming through the display and pointing out to the dozen uniformed staff members every detail that could be improved. The Broad staffers stood at attention while listening, notebook in left hand and pen in right, as if trained in that pose—as I later learned they were.

A week later I saw Zhang Yue again, back at Broad Town. I had spent the previous night in the on-campus hotel, sans Internet or telephone, feeling remote from my known world. Then I ran into engineers from Trinidad, Russia, and Argentina who were in Broad Town for several weeks of lessons on maintaining Broad systems in their home countries. Like the 1,800 regular employees of the company, they were living next to the factory in Broad Town housing and eating three meals a day, free, in the company cafeteria, in a building with the English name Aspiration Theater. Unlike the 1,800, they were neither delighted by the prospect of Chinese food twenty-one times a week nor able to communicate easily in Chinese. “Remote!” a man from Trinidad scoffed when I told him the way I was feeling, and set off into an I’ll-show-you-remote soliloquy.

The next morning, I toured the factory where locomotive-sized institutional air conditioners were prepared for shipment to India, Germany, the United States, or one of forty other countries. I saw the company’s “Aviation Division,” where maintenance men kept Zhang’s helicopter ready in case he wanted to make a trip. I saw the laboratory, and the warehouse, and the NORAD-style control room, where a team of technicians watched readouts from every large-scale Broad system installed in a hotel, office building, shopping mall, or airport anywhere in the world. While I watched, the display switched from a hotel in Manhattan to the international airport in Madrid to a new structure in Beijing.

Then it was time to interview the creator and owner of it all, whom I invariably heard referred to in Broad Town as “our chairman.” Chairman Zhang strolled without formality or entourage into a tea-break room where I was sitting, slapped me on the back, and spent the next half hour grilling me, through an interpreter, about … airplanes. He loves flying, and he was the first person in China to buy a private jet. According to a Broad representative, he was also the first person in China to be certified as a private pilot, and while he rarely flies his airplanes himself anymore, he remains an aviation enthusiast. Now he wanted a new airplane. No—as an environmentalist, he needed a new airplane, one that was much more energy-efficient than the ones he now had. To be specific, he needed one that would go at least 300 miles an hour and get at least fifteen miles to a gallon of jet fuel. Zhang had lectured Dassault, the French aircraft baron, on the need to create such a plane. Zhang usually went by himself on business trips, so for efficiency he would be happy with a plane that had only two or three seats (plus one for a hired pilot). Since I had once written a book about airplanes, I should tell him which one to buy!

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James Fallows is an Atlantic national correspondent More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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