As uniformed maids bustled about the yard of the villa, Zhu Xinxin ushered a guest across black and tan Italian marble floors to an elevator that rose with a hushed glide. In the master bathroom upstairs, Zhu paused to point out gold-plated swan sink faucets that cost $7,865 each.
With an inviting smile, Zhu, wearing a black suit and lavender blouse, led her visitor downstairs. There, she described the finer details of the walk-in cigar cabinet, home theater and tiled swimming pool decorated with a Roman-style relief of horses and chariot that bulged from the wall.
"The villa is like a castle," said Zhu, a 23-year-old who works full time as the main attendant of the house.
The price of the home has been advertised at more than $47 million, one of 12 properties for sale at that amount at an opulent cloister in Beijing's eastern suburbs. If they sell close to that sum, they'll be among the most expensive real estate in the capital, the piece de resistance of a collection of 208 houses on a lush 82-acre estate.
The development, known in English as ThaiHot Mansion and Courtyards by the Canal, would stand out in most places. In China, it's astounding. The cheapest of the 50 or so properties that are still available is on the market for more than $4.7 million, according to management. Last year, the per capita annual net income of the nation's rural residents was about $1,100, by official figures. The per capita disposable income for urban dwellers was some $3,430.
The billowing crystal chandelier above the living room of Zhu's villa cost roughly $23,500.
Faced with such signs of a deepening wealth gap, the Chinese Communist Party has repeatedly indicated the need for change. Economic inequalities in China stoke the impression among many here of an upper class bordering on lords and princes, either made affluent by proximity to the party or now beholden to its power.
The imbalance extends to the rule of law. For instance, former residents of Puxin Village, much of which was razed for ThaiHot Mansion, say that some who refused to move were beaten. People who've since tried applying to government offices for redress, they said, have been detained and harassed.
Perhaps informed by that sort of dynamic, a driving refrain of President Hu Jintao's administration has been the call for "harmonious society." His premier, Wen Jiabao, is known for explicit references to dissatisfaction among the masses and the necessity of addressing the situation.
Still, there's been no sweeping reform, and Hu and Wen will leave office soon. Their replacements are to be announced at a Communist Party congress in the coming weeks or months, in a once-in-a-decade transfer of power on the Politburo Standing Committee. As is party practice, the specific date hasn't been made public.
That will leave to the next set of leaders a nation whose rise stokes fear in the West but that's also nervous about its own domestic tensions. The official Xinhua news wire reported in August that a study published by the state Chinese Academy of Social Sciences found that the income gap between China's urban and rural residents - whose populations are close in size after years of city growth - is 26 percent higher than it was in 1997 and 68 percent above the levels of 1985.
At the beautifully sculpted grounds of ThaiHot Mansion, where bamboo groves are kept lush and the lawns cut short just 20 miles from the concrete of downtown Beijing, those statistics seem remote and of little consequence.
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