China’s “most famous peasant” dies, and he never appeared on the cover of Time

What’s a little embellishment of a famous man after his death? Chinese newspapers today note with sadness the death of a man that became known as “China’s most famous peasant”, Wu Renbao (吴仁宝). Wu was the man responsible for transforming little Huaxi village in Jiangsu into a prosperous city of 35,000 people: China’s “leading village under heaven” (天下第一村). Wu died last night at the age of 85 of lung cancer, and his face is on the front pages of many newspapers today (scroll down to see gallery).

The newspapers today mourn the passing of the man with fulsome praise, yet when Xinhua broke the story on Weibo last night just after six in the evening, it reported that Wu had appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 2005. Hence today this same assertion is included in all the newspapers’ coverage of Wu, making it all the more regrettable that this assertion simply isn’t true. New News (新消息报) from Qinghai province even kindly printed said Time cover with Wu Renbao, which is actually a blatant fake that compounds the embarrassment of Xinhua and the newspapers today.

Wu Renbao and China’s “first village under heaven”
Huaxi village (华西村) in Jiangsu province was established in 1961 with an original population of 667 people. When Wu Renbao (吴仁宝) took over as Party Secretary of the village, it had assets of 25,000 yuan and debts of 15,000 yuan. Yet under Wu’s energetic leadership, the village began construction and investment projects to develop the village and the surrounding countryside. From 1978, Wu oversaw the development of a unique Huaxi-style investment model where profits were re-invested and shares were distributed to all residents of the village.

The outcome of all this was visibly astounding. Huaxi is now a prosperous town of 35,000 inhabitants with skyscrapers and luxury cars. It has even started to flaunt its wealth: in 2011, a 328-meter high-rise hotel housing a statue of an ox made from a ton of gold was opened in Huaxi. The man said to be behind the “miracle of Huaxi” was Wu Renbao. In 2012 a movie was made about his life and achievements in transforming Huaxi. Entitled simply “Wu Renbao”, the movie was made as a “gift” to the 18th Party Congress last year.

The Time cover that wasn’t

Embarrassing dupe: Wu Renbao “on the cover of Time“, as reported in New News today

In their fulsome praise of Wu Renbao today, China’s newspapers all mention that he made the cover of Time magazine in 2005. So I went looking through all the covers of Time magazine in 2005 and came up empty-handed. It was then, however, that I discovered that the newspaper New News (新消息报) from Qinghai province had kindly printed the said Wu Renbao Time cover, inadvertently revealing that it and all the other Chinese newspapers had been embarrassingly duped by a blatantly fake Time cover. It boggles the mind how this newspaper didn’t notice its terrible mistake, with the fake cover being such a nut job of nonsensical grammar. The fake Wu Renbao cover, it emerged, was in fact ripped off of this Time cover from January 2006. This fakery has already been reported on Weibo today (e.g. here or here), and elsewhere on the Chinese Internet.

Yet before we completely dismiss New News as a sorry excuse for a newspaper, it would probably be remiss not to mention that this snafu (as with everything else related to Chinese news reporting) was likely first propagated by Xinhua itself. Looking back at the paper trail of news reports yesterday, it does appear as if Xinhua was first with publishing a story of the news of Wu’s death and the claim that he appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 2005 in a report published at around 20:30 last night. As mentioned above, Xinhua had already reported the false assertion on its Weibo account just after six last evening.

Inexorably in China, all news leads back to Xinhua, and then all the rest follow.

Here’s a gallery of front pages today on Wu Renbao:


Links and sources
Ndnews: 网友称吴仁宝上《时代周刊》封面照是PS
Oriental Guardian (东方卫报): “天下第一村”华西村原党委书记吴仁宝逝世; 曾作为封面人物登上美国《时代》周刊
Time: The Richest Reds in China
New News (新消息报): 华西村的老书记吴仁宝,走了; 吴仁宝的宁夏情; 1.3亿多奖金留给集体曾登美国《时代周刊》; “天下第一村”人均存款超百万
Xinhua: “中国最有名的农民”吴仁宝辞世 曾登上时代周刊封面

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