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China’s Latest U.S. Copy: Greenwich, Connecticut

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Architects show off a model of the Fund Town, in Hangzhou, China June 26, 2015. (Matt Rivera / NBC News) Matt Rivera / NBC News

In Hangzhou, a lush, green Chinese city outside of Shanghai, regional planners are developing an Asian-themed, slimmed-down version of Greenwich, Connecticut, that they hope will mimic its Western counterpart by becoming a hub for hedge funds and boutique brokerages.

The new district, called the Yuhuang Shannan Fund Town isn’t unique within the context of China’s centrally planned economy. Beijing also has created other cities with specific missions, including trade-centric Shenzhen and a new town being built from scratch outside the capital to accommodate an as-yet-unbuilt airport. There is even a town designed like an Alpine village to attract local tourists.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Greenwich now joins Google and Apple as the recipients of China’s biggest compliments.

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What makes the Fund Town different is the extent to which planners are explicitly trying to mimic the relationship of Wall Street in New York City, and the hedge funds clustered around Greenwich.

Asked about China’s effort to replicate his town, Greenwich First Selectman Peter Tesei wished the planners luck but expressed skepticism.

“I think they can capture the physical elements of the town as best they can, said Tesei. “But it’s very hard to replicate the cultural and community elements because they’re often deeply rooted.”

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A hedge fund office, modeled on traditional Chinese buildings, under construction in the Fund Town, Hangzhou, China June 26, 2015 (Matt Rivera / NBC News) Matt Rivera / NBC News

For years, China’s leaders have been looking for ways to develop the service sector of their economy and to grow the middle class. Growing the finance sector is a particularly attractive option, since it wouldn’t add to the country’s storied pollution problems.

Thanks to a high-speed rail connection, Hangzhou is less than an hour away from Shanghai, the seat of China’s main stock exchange, about the same distance as Greenwich is from Midtown Manhattan. Hangzhou’s thick greenery is reminiscent of the well-manicured neighborhoods of Connecticut, if a bit wilder. There’s even a small putting green, despite golf’s reputation in China as a game for the bourgeois.

But there are major differences between Greenwich and Hangzhou as well. For one thing, nearly 9 million people live in Hangzhou. Greenwich has a population of about 61,000 and fewer than 4 million people live in the entire state of Connecticut. And the Fund Town is much smaller than Greenwich. The new development fits within a square mile, whereas hedge funds have spread all along the Connecticut coast.

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Greenwich became a financial hub as the result of a natural, organic process. Initially, the region was a refuge for New York City-based financial workers who decided they wanted a less-urban lifestyle. In the ‘90s, hedge funds began popping up around Greenwich, topping out at almost 4,000 firms before the dot-com bust. Today, city planners say that about 300 firms are based in the area, worth close to $350 billion.

Hangzhou, on the other hand, has a legacy as a manufacturing city, although city leaders now emphasize technology, tourism and finance. Until recently, the city was best known as one of the worldwide leaders in silk production.

Now, new buildings modeled on traditional Chinese mansions but designed to house modern corporate offices are rising in the Fund Town. Stone-cutting factories have been vacated and renovated to make room for hipper businesses, including an architectural firm and the new media outpost of the Xhinhua news agency. To confer a level of culture and sophistication to the development, the government has invited author and Nobel laureate Mo Yan to live within the complex.

“It was quite flattering. It’s not like every day that someone calls from such a distance and wants to tour the town.”

Chinese interest in developing its own version of Greenwich dates at least to 2013, when a delegation of Chinese journalists from Hangzhou came to learn about the town, according to Tesei, the Greenwich selectman.

“It was quite flattering,” said Tesei. “It’s not like every day that someone calls from such a distance and wants to tour the town.” Tesei welcomed the visitors, but he said it wasn’t clear at the time that there was a plan underway to replicate Greenwich in China.

In fact, the idea behind cloning a New England town in the Far East might not have occurred to planners in China without a little help.

“That seed was planted by us, by our development group,” said Bob Ormond, a real estate executive based in Washington state.

Ormond led the 2013 Chinese delegation to Connecticut. His Seattle-based consulting firm, GX International, is responsible for planning the Fund Town and several other residential complexes in the Hangzhou region.

Ormond said the company works with Chinese regional agencies, including the provincial government and the Communist Party, and has a voice in everything from city transportation to the interior design of new housing. According to Ormond, he and his colleagues are consciously trying to capture some of the qualities that make Greenwich so livable.

Hangzhou officials hope the parallels to Greenwich go beyond the physical appearance. Miao Chengchao, a Communist Party official in the city, said it is projected that the value of the assets under management within the Fund Town will equal a third of those managed by Greenwich-based firms within the next five years.

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Despite its American inspiration, the Fund Town is unmistakably Chinese and is surrounded by vestiges of the country’s rich history. Cradled between mountains where farmers grow green tea, 8,000-year-old Hangzhou was once the western terminus of the Silk Road. The lake at its center has inspired countless poems and stories, and its lanterns are featured on China’s yuan currency. Walls visible along the road to the Fund Town used to be part of the Song Dynasty’s imperial headquarters.

Now Beijing hopes Hangzhou can play a role in modern history by helping China catch up to developed countries like the United States.

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Alibaba's Jack Ma. AP

Already it has become one of the nation’s leading incubator of new companies. Its best-known success story is Alibaba, the giant e-commerce firm sometimes compared to Amazon.com, which has in turn created spin-off companies. A successful beverage company, Wahaha, also burst out of Hangzhou before it, meaning that two of China’s 10 richest people – Jack Ma and Zong Qinghou -- are based there.

Companies like that have propelled the growth of a comfortable middle class and powered the economy of surrounding Zhejiang province, which now ranks fourth-highest in the nation. That gives city planners reason to believe that Hangzhou can become a player on the world stage.

Ormond, the real estate executive from Seattle, cites repatriation as the driving factor behind his firm’s development in Hangzhou. The investment in high-quality housing and new construction is meant to attract expats who are eager to return home.

“They’re not afraid of going back to China, anymore. And that’s a giant leap from 30 years ago,” said Ormond. A city representative said that more than 10,000 Chinese students have repatriated to Hangzhou from the United States and Japan in recent years.

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Miao Chengchao, the secretary of the local Communist Party in Shengcheng, poses for a photo. June 26, 2015, in Hangzhou, China (Matt Rivera / NBC News) Matt Rivera / NBC News

Attracting Western-educated Chinese to return is central to the region’s strategy for creating a hub for private wealth management. That means getting émigrés like Rocky Hu, who went to high school in Chicago but returned to China as an adult to work in finance, to return home.

Hu now leads Olympus Hedge Fund Investments, a joint venture between three major Chinese investment groups that collectively manages $10 billion in assets. The three firms are all based in Zhejiang province, as is Olympus.

Hu, who noted that 20 percent of all Chinese private capital was generated in Zhejiang province last year, said his group is focused exclusively on local investments and caters to both Chinese and foreign investors. He said his clientele includes wealthy residents of Zhejiang, along with overseas hedge funds looking to make a move into Hangzhou.

The Chinese markets have plenty of room to grow before they catch up to American levels of investment. For example, The World Federation of Exchanges estimates that the value of companies traded on the Shanghai Stock Exchange, China’s largest, is equal to around $7 trillion, less than one-third of those traded on the largest U.S. exchange, the NYSE.

“There are huge inefficiencies. A lot of money and profit can be made here in China.”

That potential upside is attractive to entrepreneurs like Hu, who believes hedge funds represent the next big opportunity to help China’s shareholders, 80 percent of whom are individuals, continue to grow their wealth.

“There are huge inefficiencies” for Chinese investors because there are very few funds for them to invest in, Hu said. “A lot of money and profit can be made here in China.”

But some in the West, including at least one high-profile investor from the Greenwich area, say that China’s still-young financial sector will face turbulence as it matures, which could make it difficult for Fund Town to mimic its Western wellspring.

Raymond Dalio, the founder of the world’s largest hedge fund -- Connecticut-based Bridgewater Associates, which is just up the road from Greenwich – told his clients recently that he has reconsidered the wisdom of investing in China after the Shanghai stock market lost 30 percent of its value during a three week period this summer.

Citing the government’s ineffective attempts to slow the rout, he noted that the Chinese exchanges are still relatively young and volatile and therefor fraught with risk.

As a result, Dalio wrote, Bridgewater will be more careful about its exposure to China. “There are now no safe places to invest,” he wrote.