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
Zhang and Inconvenient Truths

If I had asked my European friend what he was seeing but not noticing at Broad Town, the answer should have been: wood. Polished, attractive wood shows up in every structure. Clean, gleaming wood floors and beams in a lovely Japanese house, built (for no apparent reason) as part of a “Global Village” of housing styles from around the world. Wooden parquet floors and walls in a gymnasium for badminton and Ping-Pong. Wooden furniture in many of the offices. Dark wood paneling in the Mediterranean Club. Wood-block flooring throughout. If China was ever rich in timber resources, it certainly is not now. Why should a heavy-industry facility use so much expensive wood?

Because it was free. All of the wood was recycled from shipping pallets and packing crates coming into the factory. Where it came from before that is another matter, but once it got to Broad Town, it was carefully reprocessed and reused—all at the insistence of Zhang Yue.

There is a showboat aspect to Broad Town’s recycling effort—every person I met there told me the story of the packing crates. And the Porsches roaring through town over the luxury weekend did not quite fit Zhang’s message that people should be conscious of their environmental impact at all times. But in fairness, when the United Nations Environment Program held a forum at Broad Town in 2003, Zhang argued that worldwide, systematic changes—in energy, packaging, and transportation—were essential so consumers could “enjoy a comfortable yet moderate life.” And when we finally reached my friend from NASA, around 6:30 a.m. EST, Zhang grilled him (through an interpreter) about the most efficient engines on the market—and lit up when he heard about a radically more efficient airplane being made in Austria. His company got its start partly because China was growing too fast for its own electric grid. Over the last decade he has read constantly about environmental problems and has come up with serious-sounding proposals for what his company, his country, and the world could do.

Solar-energy collectors are everywhere in Broad Town. Part of boot-camp indoctrination is training employees about environmental issues. When the company sells a cooling unit, it also offers guidance on reducing demand for air-conditioning. “For years the Chinese government focused only on economic development, but now they say that the environment and the economy should both be stressed,” Zhang told me. “But really the environment needs to be in first place, and economic growth in fourth.” Not seeing the trap, I asked what should come second and third. “The environment, and the environment!” he said. “The real measure of our economic progress is the life people can live, and the [gross domestic product] does not measure that.” He observed that a ton of dirty coal might bring 120 yuan, or $15, in profit—but recent studies had shown that a ton of coal cost at least 200 yuan in medical care for inhabitants of the bleak, cancer-ridden mining towns. “Any primary-school child can see what’s wrong with that,” Zhang said. “But our economists can’t.”

For another international conference on the environment, Zhang prepared a captivating and unintentionally revealing document called “The World in 2015.” Part of it is quiet Chinese triumphalism: the world’s largest trading zone will be in Asia; the international currency will be not the U.S. dollar but the Asian dollar; the world’s most popular movie will be a drama set in ancient China. The world’s most profitable and admired company will not be one that sells computers or airplanes or oil but one that quietly economizes on energy use around the world, starting with new air-conditioning systems. “This company still has little reputation, for they have done those things others don’t care about … It doesn’t matter that people may not know the name of this company, but they should know it is a Chinese company.”

The conclusion of the imagined history involves a historic UN speech by another of Zhang’s idols: “Albert Gore, sixty-seven years old, walked slowly to the platform. This old man, who became Secretary-General of the UN one year ago, has a dull look in his eyes.” Why had no one heeded his warnings when there was time? Why did the world keep building more coal and nuclear plants, instead of noticing what was happening to its climate and learning to conserve? “Choked with sobs, Secretary [Gore] cannot speak.” At last he finds his voice and challenges mankind, in the final words of Zhang’s essay, “to choose the establishment of the new moral ideal with higher standards.”

Subtle? No. Consistent with every detail of Zhang’s daily life? Probably not. But as an indication that more than pure moneymaking is under way, it is worth noticing. China will bring more than mere commerce to the world.

Photographs by Michael Christopher Brown

James Fallows is an Atlantic national correspondent
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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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