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
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James Watt, the English inventor, and an Egyptian pyramid are among Broad Town's historical figures and buildings.

I delicately asked whether he needed such a plane now, or could wait two or three years for one of the many small jets currently being developed. Without waiting for translation he said, in Chinese, “Now! Now!” As I began to say (gulp) that no such plane existed at the moment, I saw his face cloud. So I backtracked and said I would call a friend at NASA who was the world’s expert on exciting new aircraft, to see if he knew of one. Fine! said Zhang. Let’s call him now! Well, it was 3:30 a.m. on the U.S. East Coast. Maybe we could wait an hour or two?

Airplanes deferred for the moment, Zhang spent half an hour talking about himself, his company, and his vision for China. Every second of that time, he was in motion around the room, talking as if dictating to scriveners. Zhang Yue is a short, very trim man, forty-six years old; his black hair appears undyed, and his face is youthful and smooth. “I have not taken a medicine in eighteen years!” he said at one point with pride. Nervous energy may be the key to his fitness. Like many Chinese nouveaux riches (I am told), he is impatient and indulged. Unlike many American pluto­crats, he has no formality or stuffiness. I enjoyed being with him. Suddenly he decided that he’d had enough—and with a reminder that we’d meet that evening, after I called my NASA friend, he was gone.

China, like America, is too big, complicated, and contradictory to have any “typical” or representative character. Zhang Yue is no more representative of today’s China than a fur merchant like John Jacob Astor or a press baron like William Randolph Hearst was representative of the America of his time. But certain prominent characters are interesting because they are so clearly of their culture’s moment in history. Astor was of the era in which natural resources were being turned into fortunes, and those fortunes turned into social standing. Hearst built his fortune in the age of large urban markets and converted it, with mixed results, into political influence and the artistic legacy of his castle. Zhang is of the moment when China has opened the door to ambitious people with entrepreneurial plans. And to me he is more interesting than many others superficially like him, because he suggests an answer to one fundamental question about the China of the era to come. The question is what China will dream of, as its dreams of money begin to be realized. Most people will be poor, far into the future. But tens of millions of Chinese are already able to think of more than just getting by. Zhang, it turned out, had more than making money and buying as-yet-undeveloped planes on his mind.

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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.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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