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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New Employees go through a ten-day session of boot camp, divided into platoons and living in barracks.
Zhang: Utopian or Tyrant?

The first time I was in an office building at Broad Town, a European friend who has lived in China for years nudged me and asked, What don’t you see? I looked around and realized: I didn’t see piles of junk.

There were no scrap papers, cigarette butts, half-empty teacups, or other debris on the Broad Town desks, which made it different from other places I had seen in China. What was true in the office was true of the factory as well: no heaps of spare parts or scrap metal, no workers holding welding guns while standing barefoot, no oily rags looking as if they were about to burst into flames. What I had seen in many other Chinese worksites fit the motto “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing sloppily.” But when I saw a gardener kneeling on one of Broad Town’s sweeping lawns and resodding a small plot of grass practically blade by blade, I realized: This is like Japan!

Those would be fighting words in much of China, so let me be precise: The people working at Broad Town seemed not just to be holding jobs but to have been made into a culture and team. Japan’s thoroughgoing organization of people into large teams—the Mitsubishi team, the Toyota team—often seems like a peacetime military. At Broad Town the connection is more explicit. New recruits go through a ten-day session of literal boot camp, wearing military-style outfits and living in barracks on the grounds. They run in platoons through Broad Town’s streets in fatigues, behind an instructor carrying a unit flag. Many of the blog-world concerns about Broad involve recruits who drop out during the training—or are summarily dismissed, for versions of “bad attitude.”

After demobilization into the regular workforce, employees are like an army in mufti. They eat, work, and sleep on the base—I mean, the factory grounds. They are roused each morning at 6:00 for physical training before the workday begins. Zhang and his wife and son live at Broad Town too, as do his parents, in houses tucked behind the fishpond that helps supply the company cafeteria. White-collar workers, male and female, wear a blue-blazer uniform every day, as does Zhang. Factory workers wear royal-blue uniforms with their employee number stenciled in large digits down one leg. Every Monday morning the workforce musters for the raising of the national and company flags. When I asked Sean Wang about the clean factories and overall air of control, he said, “We want to solve problems at their root.” He was talking about how a little bit of dirt in the factory could lead to big, expensive problems later on, but the point seemed to apply more generally. It was a one-company illustration of what former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and others have called the Asian social bargain: less individual latitude, more collective success.

I heard from a former factory worker that pay for blue-collar workers, nearly all of them male, starts at 1,200 yuan per month, or about $150. That’s not bad by Chinese factory standards—especially considering that Changsha is a low-cost area, and Broad workers get their food and housing free. I’ve visited factories near Shanghai and Guangzhou where monthly wages started at 900 yuan. Zhou Wei, of Broad, declined to comment on pay levels in the company, but I heard that white-collar workers started at around 2,000 yuan per month. In theory, Chinese law requires companies to pay overtime to anyone working more than forty hours in a week. Some managers of North American–, Japanese-, or European-owned companies with Chinese plants have mentioned to me that they obey this rule. It hardly ever comes up in discussions with companies from mainland China, Taiwan, or Singapore. At Broad the rule seems to be “Work till the job is done.” I met some former employees who said that they typically had two days off per month; often worked till midnight; and survived by shoveling down food as quickly as they could and then using the rest of their lunch and dinner breaks, two hours apiece, for sleep. They weren’t complaining: this is modern China.

As will be obvious by now, there are things both admirable and creepy about this utopia. In every way possible, Zhang has isolated the culture of Broad Town from influences other than his own. He has no public shareholders to second-guess his choices—whether to stick to environmentally friendly products or to build a pyramid—nor even bankers holding debt. He has distanced the company from governmental control as much as any Chinese company owner can. His workers are physically distant from the distractions of Changsha—and that city itself is distant from the thriving metropolises of the coast. The same blogs that complain about imposed cult-like behavior at Broad acknowledge that the jobs pay well enough that plenty of new applicants are always willing to put on military uniforms and live their lives at Broad Town.

The positive aspect of this invented world is its ambition for something more than sheer efficiency and success. The entire workforce also musters for musical events. Many employees play musical instruments, and apparently all can, or do, sing. On December 31, 1999, Zhang had all of his workers stand in front of the then half- finished Versailles to be photographed singing in the new millennium. (The palace now serves as a “management training center,” for meetings and seminars; the pyramid’s interior is being fitted out as an environmental museum.) The inspirational sayings carved on nearly every wall could sound like corporate boilerplate. From the founder of Toyota: “There is no boat that cannot be sunk” (Moral: Don’t let up). But the walls also bear sayings from Abraham Lincoln and other non-corporate figures. Among those honored with statues are Winston Churchill, the Chinese poet Li Bai, and Martin Luther King Jr. Zhang has not forgotten his background as an artist, and he is renowned for fussing over every design detail of every feature of Broad Town.

When I asked him a more polite version of what any visitor would wonder—What is the deal with the pyramid?—Zhang said: “Our products are to make people comfortable and happy. If our employees are comfortable and happy, that will affect their work ethic and their professionalism.” He said that good food matters—and the food at Broad Town is good. So does a visually pleasant environment—and most vistas in this controlled landscape are pleasant. “Many companies in China are looking only for the short-term profit,” he said in conclusion. “Some of our expenditures are not directly for manufacture and sales, but our vision is long term, and we believe that indirectly they will increase manufacture and sales.” And even if the steps don’t pay off, in the end it’s his company, and like utopians before him, he seems to consider it another work of art.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. 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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